Theories are many for why the Shops at Kenilworth, an enclosed shopping center just inside the Baltimore Beltway in Towson, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month while many malls 10 times its size have struggled.
"You know your customers. Just about every third customer that comes into my store I know by name," said Cassandra Herman Coyle, whose father, Harry Herman, founded the bakery known for its wedding cakes. "We've seen families grow and children come back with their own children."
"There aren't many like this, because there aren't many that haven't driven away all the independent retailers," said Britt Beemer, a Charleston, S.C.-based retailing consultant, noting the center's eclectic mix of specialty shops. "Mallers like the security of the national chains because they know they won't go out of business. They chase what's easy."
And shopper Elly Wolff reasoned that it's simply more manageable and less intimidating than the warehouse stores and mega-malls of today.
"You have to walk down all those aisles, and if you want one nail you have to buy a whole big package. It's just too much," she said.
An enclosed mall with no anchors and just one national retailer, the Shops of Kenilworth seems an anomaly in the world of modern retail. Some of the stores' signs have the same block lettering they had 20 years ago. Kids toss pennies into a fountain in the middle of the mall, and people have lunch in a plain, nondescript food court.
Nearly half of the Baltimore area's 27 enclosed malls have been abandoned or shut down since the earliest were built in the 1950s, according to David Fick, a retail analyst and managing director at Legg Mason in Baltimore. Some have been demolished or turned into "big box" centers anchored by free-standing stores such as Target or Wal-Mart.
"The smaller or second-tier malls that survive today have evolved to serve either a local niche or moved down scale to serve different clientele than the dominant malls," Fick said.
Kenilworth found its niche among a core of affluent shoppers from nearby Baltimore and Baltimore County neighborhoods such as Ruxton, Green Spring Valley, Homeland and Roland Park. They're drawn to specialty shops such as Stebbins Anderson, a quaint throwback in an era of huge hardware chains, and Lax World, a sporting goods store whose variety of lacrosse gear attracts athletes from nearby private schools and colleges.
The mall has reported sales increases for the past six consecutive years, according to its owner, Cincinnati-based Kenilworth Limited Partners . From 2000 to 2002, it posted a 30-percent increase in sales at a mixed time for retailing as a whole.
"It's in the heart of a densely populated relatively affluent area in a neighborhood that is otherwise underserved when it comes to retail," said Tom Maddux, president of commercial real estate company NAI KLNB Inc. in Towson.
Families like Kenilworth because they say it's easier to keep track of their kids there, and people don't mind if children run around. Older people say they like not having to navigate a complicated parking garage - the mall has a modest parking lot out front - and can get in and out quickly.
Kenilworth isn't as popular with teen-agers who are often looking for more trendy names such as the Gap Inc. or Hot Topic. But the mall draws a large lunchtime crowd from nearby office buildings. Workers come to eat at places such as Herman's Bakery or Italian Gardens, mainstays since the mall opened in 1978.
"It's a family atmosphere," said Bonnie Tarantino, who visits Italian Gardens with her husband, Scott, and 3-year-old son, Jack, for pizza that's the closest they've tasted in this area to pizza in their native New York.
"It's a compact mall, so it's easy to get around," said Suzanne Watkins, who gets her nails done at About Faces Day Spa & Salon and her son Andrew's hair cut at Gotti's Classic Cut. "It also has upscale shops. Not what you find at most places."
When Kenilworth opened, there wasn't as much shopping in the vicinity. Shoppers came mainly to Hochschild, Kohn & Co., a Baltimore retail institution that anchored the mall then. When Hochschild Kohn's closed in 1987 - a year before the whole chain shut down - larger malls in Towson, White Marsh and Hunt Valley posed large competition.
Kenilworth Limited Partners became part owner of the mall in 1989 and bought out the rest of the partners in 1994. The new owner began an overhaul, replacing tenants typical of most strip shopping centers such as drug stores and liquor stores with more high-end boutiques. It also worked to differentiate itself from the much larger malls.
"We wanted to attract niche tenants who may not be the most popular but are high quality," said John Heekin, a partner with Kenilworth Limited Partners. "Our plan was not to compete with Towson Town Center."