Berlin Businesses Report Mixed Reviews On Summer

BERLIN – The tourist season so far in Berlin has gotten varied reviews, with some saying more people are visiting, while others contend there are fewer people visiting the town and they are spending less.

“The merchants tell me it seems there’s more people but they’re not spending as much money,” said Michael Day, coordinator for Berlin’s Main Street Program, a downtown economic development initiative. “Everyone seems to see more foot traffic in general.”

There are fewer sales per visitor, according to Day’s informal discussions with shopkeepers, but some see more positive results.

Victorian Charm is one shop that is doing “very well,” in the words of owner Debbie Frene.

“There are a lot of people in town. They’ve been buying,” she said. “We’re just as good as we were last year.”

J.J. Fish art gallery has had the same level of customers as last year, owner Judy Fisher said.

“Things have been going fine. Once June got here, things started to pick up,” said Fisher. “We’ve seen plenty of people.”

The Globe co-owner Jennifer David said the pace around Berlin has quickened with the summer season.

“You can tell that downtown foot traffic has definitely picked up, especially in recent weeks,” said David. “Its amazing to me how many people discover this little town. … “According to our numbers, May was great and June was not so great, to be honest. We’re looking forward to July.”

Some merchants see a different trend.

“Overall, we’re down this year,” said Patricia Fischer, owner of Town Center Antiques. “I don’t think there’s even as many people. Traffic is way down.”

While visitors are reportedly spending money in Berlin’s shops and even buying some high-ticket items, less are taking the purchase plunge, according to some merchants.

“It’s different this year. There seems to be people here but they seem to be looking more so than buying,” said Bridget Foster of Sassafrass Station. 

Fischer attributed sluggish sales to high gas prices and a slumping economy.

Foster agreed. “I think it’s going to be this way until the gas prices come down. That’s a big chunk of their vacation funds,” she said. “I’m noticing a lot of people from Pennsylvania and Delaware, but still, once they get down here they have to pay for lodging and food and it doesn’t leave a whole lot of extra income for souvenirs or gifts.”

Fischer said that she knows of some businesses that are ready to sell, which could leave storefronts empty, creating problems for the remaining merchants.

“The more we have to offer, the more that’s open, the more we’re a destination, the more people come,” Fischer said.

Berlin already has some vacant storefronts, such as the former Berlin Hardware store on Main Street and the Corner Cupboard on William Street.

“It would be nice to have them filled, but I don’t know how you go about it,” Foster said.

David said the store vacancies is evidence more is needed in Berlin.

“I think that in and of itself is a sign we need to attract businesses to the downtown,” David said.

Visitors have said they want more to do in Berlin, so they can extend their visit. Day has been working on attracting businesses to fill empty venues, but it is not easy.

“People are timid right now about starting new ventures,” Day said.

Day suggested Berlin is “screaming” for a used bookstore. A coffee shop is also a natural fit for the town, he believes, as are another art gallery, art supply store or craft studio.

Berlin already has a nice blend of stores and activities, Fischer of Town Center Antiques maintains, which is crucial to attracting visitors. The town is too small to accommodate many more businesses, she said.

Both Foster and Frene suggested the addition of family-style dining to bring more people in. More clothing stores could also attract more people, according to Frene.

A coffeeshop and bookstore, the right niche restaurant, some type of clothing store are all good ideas, David said, but prospective business owners need to find a venture that will pay their bills.

An information kiosk, better signs, and an “overall primping” of Main St. could make the town more attractive to visitors, David said.

“We need to find out what our vision is,” said David, adding that the new Berlin Comprehensive Plan will consider some of those issues.

An article on Berlin in the Baltimore Sun several weeks ago has attracted more visitors, said J.J. Fish’s Fisher. Some customers have mentioned the article while shopping at the gallery.

Businesses should also consider staying open one or two evenings a week, to attract a dinner crowd, some merchants suggest. Few businesses stay open past the workday normally and dinner visitors have nothing to do in town after finishing a meal.

“At night, they’re looking for something else than the Boardwalk and mini-golf,” said Frene. “The bad thing is, people come here and have dinner and everything’s closed.”

Foster said she’s being positive about the state of Berlin and its future.

“I’m definitely optimistic,” said Foster. “People are always going to come. It’s just a matter of hanging on in this economy.”