Pop-up shop designed to spur interest in Highlandtown business

Restaurant and Catering IndustryJC Penney Company Inc.The GapAnn TaylorPatterson ParkHalloween

Three weeks ago, the Highlandtown storefront was empty and apparently without prospects.

On Saturday, the space was filled with holiday wreath-making, carefully crafted plant arrangements and free coffee.

The rapid transformation into a "pop-up" shop was the handiwork of organizers from the Southeast Community Development Corp. In a few days, the space will be clear once more, but the community group wants to leave behind a message about the vitality of business in Highlandtown.

Organizers hoped that by sprucing up the former hair salon, they might make the space more attractive to potential full-time occupants. They also handed out holiday shopping guides so residents would know where to get winter scarves, sugar cookies and the latest smartphones without ever leaving Highlandtown

"We know that there are so many empty places that used to be a business," said Highlandtown resident Blanca Tapahuasco. "But here's a place where we can say, 'Hey, it's open for business again!' That's what's most attractive to me."

"This place did not look like this a week ago," added Anne Fleshman, one of the merchants selling out of the one-day shop. "But I would love to see it be this way every weekend."

Pop-up stores — which temporarily occupy otherwise unoccupied spaces — have proliferated across the country in recent years. Sometimes, they're the work of artisans who want to generate buzz around new products without the expense of a full-time shop. Sometimes, they house seasonal Halloween and Christmas stores. And sometimes, they offer new neighborhood toeholds to large retailers such as The Gap, JCPenney and Ann Taylor.

The Highlandtown version was more about community development than selling goods.

The pop-up was staged by Highlandtown Main Street, an initiative devoted to stimulating business along a 10-block stretch of Eastern Avenue beginning at Patterson Park. The strip was once the city's second-largest commercial district. Though many shops and restaurants remain open and thriving, plenty of other storefronts, like the ones at 401 and 403 S. Conkling St., are unoccupied.

Organizers figured that if they could turn those empty spaces into a bright, inviting shop in less than three weeks, they might send a message about the potential that still lies in Highlandtown.

"It's to show that that, if you have a business that looks bright and interesting, people will come in," said Kari Snyder, director of neighborhood programs and marketing for the SCDC.

The idea came from John McCartin, an intern with the SCDC who had staged similar pop-ups when he was a college student in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"The appeal is that, with a relatively low investment in terms of money, you can revive something for awhile," he said.

On one wall, children wrote messages to Santa containing their wishes for Baltimore. "I want a cleaner city," wrote one. "A better school lunch program," added another. In a neighboring storefront, video monitors beamed collages designed by Highlandtown schoolchildren.

Pop-ups are perfect for craftspeople who only want to dabble in retail, said Fleshman, who runs a garden design and plant business out of her home.

"It's a genius idea," she said between sales of her potted creations. "I think it's a new concept in Baltimore, but I'm hoping to see a lot more of it."

Kathi Sibiski's parents operated a bar and restaurant in neighboring Canton for 45 years. She agreed that the pop-up concept is a good way to create excitement in older neighborhoods around the city.

"People should know that we're still here," she said of Highlandtown. "We're still interested."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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