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For a long time, Kensington had the reputation as the place you go for antiques and to get your car fixed.
That is changing as the Town of roughly 2,200 people sees an influx of interior design studios, clothing boutiques, spas and restaurants. In the last year, 10 new retailers have opened in the Town and just outside the Town’s borders in an area once dominated by auto repair shops.
Now, mixed among the timeworn furniture and zany collectibles of Antique Row is a coffee shop, studio for art and design classes and a Mid-Century Modern furniture retailer who owes much of his popularity to the TV show “Mad Men.”
“We’re seeing a much more vibrant and stronger retail mix and at the same time, we’re building on our heritage as a destination for antiques” said Town of Kensington Mayor Peter Fosselman. “It’s kind of the next generation of retailers.”
Meghan McNamara opened her combination design studio, furniture rehab center and boutique store in November along a line of repair shops and light industrial uses on Howard Avenue west of Connecticut Avenue.
There’s no real streetscape, no sidewalks and little if any landscaping (something Fosselman asked for help changing through the Montgomery County capital budget).
But there is plenty of space for relatively cheap, which was one of McNamara’s motivations for opening in Kensington. Her Regan & Meaghan studio has room for a store, spray booth and monthly workshops. Another factor for the Bethesda native was the growing number of do-it-yourself home design types relocating to the street.
“It really has that focus on industrial arts. There are metal workers on the street. To be immersed among things like that, that was the first layer as to why we chose Kensington,” McNamara said. “We just want to be around other artists.”
McNamara’s client base is region-wide and the business has done it’s own public relations campaign. Bahia Akerele, who opened On The Purple Couch last September, has put forth a similar effort just to let people know what’s happening on Howard Avenue.
When she went on WUSA9 to talk about her store’s Chalk Paint products, Fosselman sent a link via email to people throughout the Town.
“I thought that was pretty cool, it seems to me that he is interested in bringing people into Kensington,” Akerele said. “People don’t know what’s on West Howard. They know the original Antique Row and that there’s car repair places here. Now of course, there’s the car repair and other stuff.”
Akerele moved her business from downtown Silver Spring.
“Kensington and the antique district just felt more like-minded with what I was trying to do with my business,” Akerele said. “Silver Spring was just too much for more too soon. Not having that bustling downtown retail, but to be able to offer a workshop space was good for me.”
The evolution of Kensington’s business district started in part when Fosselman took over as mayor in 2006. He got the General Assembly to allow full liquor licenses in the Town, which was essentially dry at the time. That started attracting some restaurants and foot traffic. Some failed. But others, such as the K Town Bistro, sub*urban trading co. and Java Nation (10516 Connecticut Ave.) have thrived.
The cafe and coffee shop that Kensington resident Henry Cabana opened last year will go in front of the county’s Board of License Commissioners on Thursday for liquor license approval. Soon, a wood oven-style pizza place called Frankly Pizza will open on Armory Avenue.
The second component of that was a Town-wide public relations and marketing campaign, which took form when the Town contracted Rockville-based Maier & Warner in 2009. The firm created a website, Explore Kensington, and helped improve and market Town events.
The third part was a new county master plan, which will allow some mixed-use zoning in the Town. Still, don’t expect near the density of downtown Bethesda.
“While we like Bethesda or some of the other downtown areas, we don’t want to be that intense or that dense,” Fosselman said. “But at the same time, people would like to have more ability to walk places and get almost everything they need.”
“Change comes slowly to Antique Row,” said Margaret Goldsborough, a Garrett Park resident and co-owner of Goldsborough Glynn Classic Furnishings & Finds.
Goldsborough’s furniture store fits the mold of the more traditional antique shop that has long been synonymous with Kensington. The shop started in Antique Market II, a multi-dealer space a few steps from her Howard Avenue location.
“Generally speaking, there does seem to be a little wrinkle right now with some new folks, which is a nice thing,” said Golsborough, who recently expanded her store after the previous store owner retired. “It’s really nice to have a critical mass of shops and in this case, distinct individual shops, not a single cookie cutter outfit here.”
New or recent retailers in Kensington include Java Nation, McNamara’s Regan & Meaghan, Akerele’s On the Purple Couch, Alight Spa Wellness Center, Bonjour Mama, Decorating Den Interiors, HomeWorks, Nirvana Reflexology Spa, Urban Thrift, Sage Style and a barbershop.
In the context of small retailers that the Town covets, Doug Meyers’ Modern Mobler was a huge addition. The Mad Men-style furniture store has a strong following in D.C., where its first store is located. Meyers opened the Kensington location in October without much knowledge of Kensington outside of its reputation for antiques.
“Before even thinking about opening up over there, I just knew it as a small little destination where a lot of decorators and designers go,” Meyers said. “A good amount of our sales have happened as a result of people just walking down the strip. We’ve found that you can capture a lot of foot traffic there, especially on the weekends.”
Katrina Ulrich, owner of Red Persimmon Imports, actually moved to Kensington before bringing her business there. She opened her shop, which started in 2004 at the Capitol Hill Flea Market, in September 2013. She’s gotten involved with the local merchants association and gone to a few Town meetings.
“My business is a huge part of my life. It works out really well that way,” Ulrich said.
The historic homes, tree-lined neighborhoods and — most importantly — independence are the things Ulrich said make Kensington both a good place to live and to do business.
“I like that there’s a lot of small businesses here. I like that there’s not real big box businesses. I have become acquainted with the local shop owners,” Ulrich said. “We all work together to promote everybody else. We’re a real community.”