BERLIN, Md. — It has no stoplight, large grocery store or food chain, but the downtown of this red-brick, Victorian-era community is plastered with boutique shops, quaint inns and the “America’s Coolest Small Town 2014” logo.
This town, nestled 10 miles to the west of Ocean City, is no stranger to fame. Berlin has hosted movies such as “Runaway Bride” and “Tuck Everlasting”, along with numerous annual events. However, nothing has put it on the map like its newest title.
Budget Travel hosts the annual “America’s Coolest Small Town” competition, and citizens around the world can go online and vote for their favorite U.S. town with a population of less than 10,000 residents, according to its website.
Winning the contest last year brought cultural revival and economic growth to Berlin, according to Ivy Wells, the town’s director of economic and community development.
“So what this did was put us on the global and national map as a destination,” Wells said. “People ask, ‘What is the definition of a cool small town?’ So they come and find out.”
Now that Berlin is officially “cool”, business is booming.
Only one main commercial street runs through the town. A handful of restaurants and a slew of owner-operated businesses line the road until it meets the Atlantic Hotel, in the center of town. From there, locals and tourists can take detours to back streets where one can find additional shops.
Shelly Bruder, owner of a boutique clothing and accessory shop named Bruder Hill, can attest to the success of her business in the past year.
After Berlin became “America’s Coolest Small Town”, Bruder Hill’s profits increased 30 percent from the year before, according to the owner.
“Years ago, we had a really thriving boutique.” Bruder said. “When we hit the recession, it really changed things around for me … But when we got ‘Coolest Small Town,’ I really capitalized on that because I knew we were going to have a lot more (visitors).”
Tea towels and cards are now among the items in Bruder’s shop that have the “America’s Coolest Small Town 2014” emblem stamped on them. However, Bruder Hill is not the only business to do this.
Multiple shops and restaurants in town use, or have used, a version of the title on its products. Jennifer Dawicki, owner and general manager of The Globe Restaurant and Bar, used the title on t-shirts that she sold in the front lobby.
Dawicki also capitalized on the town’s success by hiring a photographer to take pictures of the “America’s Coolest Small Town” naming ceremony for her website and restaurant.
Although the competition brought attention to Berlin, local businesses already had the entrepreneurial mindset and energy, according to Dawicki.
Now restaurants are enjoying profit boosts as much as the shops are.
As of this year, there are eight restaurants in Berlin, not including bakeries or coffee shops.
Three of these eateries were added in the last two years alone, according to Dawicki. But competition makes her business thrive, she said.
“While our sales might be down slightly, our profit is up,” Dawicki said. “We are sharing our business a little bit, but we are getting better at what we are doing. The strong will survive, and that is just capitalism.”
As Berlin’s economy gets stronger, business owners are learning to cooperate with one another in a series of monthly meetings.
Wells runs these merchant meetings for business owners to come together and bring their concerns, according to Larnet St. Amant, executive director for the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and an employee at Bruder Hill.
“If someone is doing something or running a special that week, we promote it,” St. Amant said.
Businesses are constantly helping each other out, Bruder said. Visitors can go into one shop and see the owner promote a piece of clothing from another.
The Globe prides itself on promoting other businesses, too, Dawicki said.
“Almost all of our beer is made locally,” Dawicki said. “Those relationships are part of why Berlin is what it is. If we all support each other, we will only get better. Although ‘America’s Coolest Small Town’ was an amazing honor, the energy was here and will always be here.”
Whether you are shopping or eating, Berlin’s atmosphere is what make visitors feel at home, according to Bruder and St. Amant.
What makes Berlin “cool” cannot be calculated. It must be experienced.
It was a dreary Thursday afternoon at The Globe. Joe, a weekly patron, walked into the restaurant and started talking to the hostess as though she was a family member.
“Hi,” the hostess said. “How are you?”
“Phew, I am a little wet around the edges,” Joe replied. “What are you up to?”
“Nothing,” the hostess replied. “I’m just waiting for you to show up.”