Break the Chain
Keith Lipert and other small business owners help Georgetown maintain its independent spirit
BY KRISTA BULLION
More than any other Washington, D.C. n e i g h b o r h o o d , Georgetown is famous for its shopping, charm and unique style. Shop owners there have endured many trials to help the neighborhood retain its independent identity.
One shop embodying Georgetown's unique qualities is Keith Lipert Gallery. Treasures for sale in this M Street boutique include fashion jewelry from Paris, evening wraps from the shores of Lake Como, bowties and cuff links, and creative diplomatic and corporate gifts. Women come wearing gowns and try on accessories in front of the Gallery's many mirrors. Husbands relax on the couch with a book from the "library."
On the evening of January 6, 2006, Lipert saw his dreams go up in smoke when a fire gutted his store. He was devestated as he stood the next morning amid the smoldering rubble that once was his livelihood.
In Frank Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life, the Bedford Falls community rallies around a despairing George Bailey, and in supporting one of their own supports itself. In what he terms a "Jimmy Stewart moment," Lipert recalls that after the fire the Georgetown community "wrapped its collective arms around me and gave me the courage to go forward." Recharged, he visualized the possibility of a resurrected and improved Gallery which, seven months later, was back and open for business.
Lipert's Gallery, along with other Georgetown shops, continues to withstand the incursion of national chain stores such as Barney's Co-op, Banana Republic and Pottery Barn. According to several local merchants, including William A. "Billy" Martin, head of the Georgetown Business Association and owner of Martin's Tavern, the presence of national chain stores in Georgetown has increased dramatically, while local shops have closed.
One factor allowing national chains to make inroads versus independent Georgetown retailers is rising storefront costs, including property taxes. In fact, according to Martin, in the last few years D.C. commercial property taxes, which are not capped, rose between 60 and 90 percent. John Sproul, owner of the CD Warehouse, states that since 2004 his property taxes have risen 100 percent.
But can chain stores turn Bedford Falls into Pottersville? Not exactly, says Juanita Crabb, executive director of the Georgetown Business Improvement District. Crabb believes that despite the steady increase of chain stores, none of the recently introduced nationals have "taken over" an independent store's space, moving only into vacant storefronts. While those vacancies could be attributed to the rising costs noted above, Crabb nonetheless believes that national chains benefit retailers. Shoppers flock to Georgetown, pursuing the "nice mix of national chains and independent boutiques."
Yet most opinions hold that local shops should remain prominent in Georgetown. How to ensure this, however, is less clear. The burden for sustaining local businesses has traditionally belonged to the businesses themselves. Lipert believes that for independent businesses to remain viable versus better-advertised, higher-margin, lower-cost competition, "they have to raise their game" by being "great" instead of just good. He has demonstrated how true this is by maintaining a certain standard of class in his gallery where you can find special treasures and unique gifts that you can't get anywhere else in Washington.
The same burden belongs to neighborhood residents. For example, a 2005 study by the Civic Economics group found that for every $100 in revenue, local shops returned $68 to the local economy, while chain stores returned only $43.*
But if the benefits seem obvious, why isn't there a more concerted effort by Georgetown residents to shop locally? According to the San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Alliance, the answer is consumer education. If made aware of the benefits, Georgetown shoppers would shop locally.
Just as the Keith Lipert Gallery rose from the ashes, locals must rise together and support local shops in order for Georgetowners to continue living a "Wonderful Life."
* 2005 Andersonville Study of Retail Economics, Civic Economics, reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Main Street Fights Chain Street," Said, Carolyn, Nov. 29, 2005.