Glyph: even in Mayberry, a traditional retailer needs to leave a strong impression.

As the term “retail apocalypse” becomes increasingly mainstream, it’s a bit comforting to see an all-too-rare example of what appears to be a purely local business trying its hand along an American-as-apple-pie main street. It’s even more comforting when the entrepreneur locates in an architecturally challenging building…and succeeds.Glyph in a midcentury buildingHere we witness Glyph, a stationery-centered boutique that also offers custom graphic design and—this is really great—calligraphy and letterpress workshops. The store stands on an obliquely angled intersection in the winsome town (more like a very small city) of Havre de Grace, Maryland.IMG_9270Just 45 miles up the road from downtown Baltimore and perched on a sort of cape where the Susquehanna River flows into the Chesapeake Bay, Havre de Grace is a very attractive town. It’s nice enough to catch the attention of Smithsonian magazine as one of the nation’s best small towns to visit in 2014. It’s a charming town that seems committed to keeping its tightly-knit central business district active. It would be a pleasant way to kill a spring afternoon. But Havre de Grace is not a tourist trap.

I only make that final observation because it may prove instrumental to understanding the success of a business like Glyph. In this day and age, a successful urban retail corridor is less about running errands and more about capitalizing on an experience: the idea of shopping in a town center as a recreational pastime. Havre de Grace breeds nostalgia, and Glyph depends attracting on well-heeled visitors through Havre de Grace’s charm. In the era of online shopping, there’s no way a retailer like Glyph could survive at a mall or a strip center. They lack charm and (especially the strip centers) cater primarily to utilitarian shopping—the type where the internet is dominating. And it’s probably still a challenge to keep a place like Glyph operational even along the reasonably healthy main street of a middle-class town.   But Glyph decided to give itself another challenge: an anomalous building that its developer most likely intended to host office uses.

Essentially, as a retailer, Glyph is a non-conforming use. Those embossed faux-pillars on either side of the doorway evoke Art Deco to me, but the sea-green panels and the extra heavy, pervasive vertical accents suggest something a bit later—probably a scaled-down effort at mid-century modern from the late 50s or early 60s. If this is true, the Glyph building comes from a time when town centers were beginning to falter. It probably made no sense for the developer to construct a more conventional retail building, as office was the only viable use. By 1960, people had already decided they preferred the malls and strip centers. Even beyond this speculated historical context, these structures intrinsically make for an inhospitable habitat for retail. The thick walls aren’t easy to modify (Cold War fears necessitated fortress-like strength), and the fenestration is reticent. That is, the lack of windows makes it somewhat uninviting, and retailers can’t easily put their merchandise on display for potential passers-by.

Nonetheless, I think Glyph is likely succeeding—against all odds. Havre de Grace seems just on the verge of taking off to become a truly vibrant town (rather than merely a pleasant one). For all its disadvantages, the mid-century building is still interesting, well maintained, and visually distinctive from the other structures nearby. And Glyph itself has decided to try for more within those thick walls: not only does it sell durable goods, but it also offers classes and typography services. A one-stop shop. A retailer amidst the experiential economy.

If the proprietors of Glyph generate more revenue from graphic design and typography, they have positioned themselves as a predominantly service-oriented biz—exactly what works in this unforgiving retail climate. Therefore, what might have proven the kiss of death for some ambitious entrepreneurs has turned out to be a feather in their caps. And no, the owners at Glyph didn’t pay me for this article (they’d probably tut-tut my eccentric choice of fonts). I’m just doing my share to help draw more attention to Havre de Grace and to boost it to the next level, because it deserves it: a value judgment that Glyph and I probably share.

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11 thoughts on “Glyph: even in Mayberry, a traditional retailer needs to leave a strong impression.

  1. Alex Pline

    Not directly related to your piece, but would be interesting to understand the motivations for the city annexing adjacent suburban land as it likely has a long term effect of the success of the downtown area. A race to the bottom IMO. I wish Annapolis could deannex a bunch of land and concentrate on the “good” stuff they have.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Glad you referenced this, Alex, because this is a topic I actually can speak on fairly fluently. Annexation in the courtroom was my primary research topic in planning law classes, and my first job out of school primarily dealt with annexation challenges in various municipalities across Mississippi.

      Annexation practices are different in every state. In some, like Pennsylvania, it’s illegal (technically impossible, since the whole state is incorporated). In others, like Illinois, it happens aggressively. I think you know why most municipalities annex: they hope to bolster their tax base through high value land in the periphery that is zoned Commercial or Industrial. I agree it often scatters the focus of municipal services, but for most municipal leaders, that’s the only real negative. Even today, many Midwestern cities completely hemmed in by their suburbs are wishing they could consolidate the way Indianapolis and Louisville did, even though that yields the problems you described. The benefits still outweigh the negatives for most, and we often witness very creative drawings of city limits (the “umbilical annexation”) where boundaries get drawn to circumscribe the less valuable land, so that they can ultimately capture the big biz.I’d guess the government of Havre de Grace wants to capture the booming warehouse corridor along U.S. 40, as well as all the roadside services at the I-95 exit. And since Maryland is a state of mostly unincorporated land, the fondness for annexation is only likely to grow.

      Reply
  2. Chris B

    Eric, looks as if it was a MCM bank branch with drive-through. (See Google Street View from 2013: https://www.google.com/maps/@39.5496692,-76.0896825,3a,78.1y,109.76h,83.55t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s1dsx3ntTUJLx7DMVGVllGA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656)

    The limestone looks as if it was part of the original design, so the effect is kind of Colonial (the laid up stonework) meets Art Deco/Art Moderne, with MCM panels and trim. In the Midwest, I think the MCM style would have embodied thin red brick and/or cut “Bedford Stone” without the Art Deco accent, and the effect would have been a little less jarring. See: https://www.google.com/maps/@39.7481415,-86.1536921,3a,75y,334.86h,89.57t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1savKb_QL_DDhJVREBgtH9Jw!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en

    For a true Art Deco bank branch, see: https://www.google.com/maps/@39.8248619,-86.1530203,3a,60y,129.19h,90.19t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sG8Fsq-EoSZSDSUkBRq4bZw!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en. Chase recently closed the branch and it will be redeveloped as a neighborhood restaurant.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks Chris. I think the time period is more overtly MCM than the design–definitely the limestone doesn’t convey that so much, but the pastiche of styles which, by the late 1950s, were enjoying the resurgence of nostalgia, does somewhat place it in influential sphere of MCM. Your second example (Terrace Avenue) is definitely overt MCM, and I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t recognize it, since I go past it practically every time I’m in INdy.

      This Havre de Grace building was huge for a bank. And even bigger for a stationery shop. There may still be additional uses on the second floor of Glyph, but I think it’s a testament to Havre de Grace’s potential as a strong downtown–it’s desirable now without yet being outright coveted–that Glyph can survive. The windows aren’t good for a retailer, but Glyph also holds classes in this mammoth building. It’s an experimental, niche retailer–something that it wouldn’t be able to do easily, if real estate were more costly in the area. I wish it the best.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Glyph represents a modern archetype: creative endeavor takes over un-loved/vacant/cheap commercial space in faded downtown.

        The urban archeologist in me speculates that one historic local bank was probably in a now-demolished building on the corner, and they built this stylistic mishmash “modern” building to deal with the automobile era. (That would account for two stacked drive-up windows. It would also account for the large amount of office space above and behind the front lobby.) Then, computers and mergers happened, and they no longer needed office space for clerks, accountants, and bank officers.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          This seems like a pretty reasonable speculative history. The corner is too prime to have sat vacant for long, and if the old bank faced the wrecking ball because the building was obsolete, it should come as no surprise that the new developers chose the most modern look by 1962 standards as a replacement. I’m with you.

          Reply
      2. Chris B

        I like that Terrace Ave. bank branch. It’s small enough that it could be adapted as a very cool residence or a creative business space if it is ever closed, and it’s at the edge of a hot neighborhood.

        I’ve never been inside, but would hope that there are still original MCM details (terrazzo floor, mahogany trim, etc.).

        Reply

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