BALTIMORE – Charles Village is a Baltimore neighborhood of contrasts. Artists share blocks with white-collar professionals. Johns Hopkins University students live down the street from the working poor.
And in the midst of a recession, a new restaurant, Terra Cafe on East 25th Street, is thriving. Just two doors away, Graphic Imaging, a small family-owned printing company, may not survive.
“We’ve never seen anything like these times,” Graphic Imaging owner Richard Burnham says. “You always see fluctuations in business, but never to this degree.
“Compared to about two years ago, business is down 50 percent.”
On a sunny April afternoon, Burnham is standing in his company’s offices at 107 E 25th Street. He opens a display case across the room from his desk and points out some of the work his company has done.
“We mostly do work for businesses. We print their brochures, annual reports, and invitations for events,” Burnham says.
The company also serves individual clients, who want invitations, pictures or art reproductions printed professionally.
Looking down at gold-lined wedding invitations and a small book of Charles Village recipes, Burnham says business had been slow for a while. But the company’s chances for survival have been diminished by the recession.
“In 2000, we still had 12 or 14 employees. Now, we’re down to 4.”
In Burnham’s case, the impact of the recession has combined with troubles that go further back, some of them related to advances in technology.
“The fact that people print more at home doesn’t really affect us much,” Burnham says. “But we do get affected by Evites.” Evite.com is a free online service that allows customers to create and send event invitations at the click of a button.
“There was a lawyer who used to print his holiday cards here,” Burnham says. “Now he just sends out ‘Happy Holidays’ on the Internet.”
While small businesses are more vulnerable to an economic crisis because they generally have limited cash reserves, Paul Taylor of Baltimore’s Small Business Resource Center, says they also have a definite advantage over bigger ventures.
“Small businesses can change their business model more quickly,” Taylor says. “They continue to work within a certain lane until they can go back to their main line of work.”
So, while Terra Cafe’s owner, Terence Dickson, can easily adjust his menu and prices to his customers’ needs — clients even have the option of calling ahead to request specific dishes –flexibility is more elusive for a long-established printing shop that relies on expensive equipment.
As his year-old granddaughter tugs at his leg, Burnham rests against a printing press and muses about the future of his business.
“I don’t know yet what the last straw will be, but it’ll come before the end of the year. It’ll come down to not being able to pay the bills anymore.
“I’m not going to sell my home to save this business.”
Burnham says he would not need much to keep the business afloat: “Maybe one or two big jobs. We’ve had opportunities like that, but either they went overseas or the customers decided they couldn’t afford the job after all.”
In his two decades as a business owner in Charles Village — where two blocks can make the difference between an abandoned industrial lot and a line of picturesque painted row houses — Burnham has seen many businesses come and go.
He recalls several local restaurants that have had to close their doors, including Rocky Run and its successor, Bert’s. Burnham also points to the recent closing of a small stationery store in the neighborhood.
“The rent was just way too high for what such a small store could support,” Burnham says. “You can’t survive on selling $3 birthday cards.”
As in other areas around the city, a host of small businesses are trying to find ways to ride out the recession in Charles Village. Many of them, like Burnham’s business, have been in this diverse neighborhood for decades.
Dana Petersen Moore of the Charles Village Civic Association said: “Some people have lived here for 50, 60 years, but we also get young families and lots of students. We have every race, ethnicity, and sexual preference.”
While Terence Dickson has lived and worked in Charles Village for 11 years, Terra Cafe has been in business only four months. In its short run, it has become a community favorite, succeeding so far in a neighborhood where many other businesses have failed.
Dickson looks out of one of the cafe’s large street-level windows on a rainy morning and offers his own take on his business success.
Natural ingredients are a priority. He describes the cafe’s cuisine as “casual gourmet,” and says locals have taken to the cafe’s concept.
“Since we opened, we’ve gotten a whole new family,” he says. “Our regulars are more excited than we are, which is great. They have their tables. We know what they drink and what they’re going to eat.”
The cafe door opens and two young women step in. Instantly, Dickson is on his feet, greeting them like old friends. He makes sure they are seated and have their needs attended to before he returns to his seat by the window.
Lounging in his chair, Dickson talks about his vision for the cafe in the years to come. He looks proudly at the cafe’s high-ceilinged dining room. The walls are painted a warm terracotta. The floors and tables are meticulously clean, and the whole scene is crowned by a ceiling painted to look like a summer sky — a light shade of blue with occasional clouds floating through.
Dickson’s plan for the cafe has been in the making for many years. He first bought the house at 101 E 25th Street in 1998 and spent the next 11 years restoring it, using experience from his previous job as a contractor. He recalls that his first few years in Charles Village were not always easy.
“There used to be kind of an abrasive relationship between me and the community. They kept telling me to fix up the building already, but we both kept it respectful,” Dickson says. “Now we’re almost best friends.”
Peter Duvall of the Greater Homewood Community Corporation remembers taking Dickson to task for a code violation several years ago.
“There was a bullet hole in the front side of the building, and the restoration didn’t seem to be going anywhere.” But now, Duvall says, “The development the place has gone through is amazing. It’s even more amazing considering how bad this area has been.”
Civic Association President Moore says the cafe has become a place people in the community talk about. “People feel comfortable going there. They like the food and the atmosphere. I think he’s going to make it.”
Asked why he decided to start a business during a global economic recession, Dickson smiles.
“You’ve got to do it sooner or later, right?”