The first thing to know about Proper Topper is that it doesn’t just sell hats. Hardly. But before GM gets into that, he wants to introduce you to a new feature here on the Georgetown Metropolitan: Our Town. It will be a series of profiles of Georgetown’s great independent businesses. By GM’s own count, there are at least 300 independent businesses in Georgetown, so this series won’t lack for material. As you will see with this first installment, one of the emphases of this series is the importance of Georgetowners being aware of what we have right here, in our town, and the need for us to support them lest we lose them.
And for the first installment, GM stopped by Proper Topper at 3213 P St.:
Proper Topper was founded by Anna Fuhrman in 1990. Fuhrman graduated from Georgetown Law School in 1987 and started with Amtrak right out of law school doing legal and lobbying work. This was about the time that Union Station was undergoing a massive renovation project to restore the decrepit building to its former glory. As an Amtrak employee, Fuhrman saw first hand the potential of the newly renovated space that the organizers hoped, in her words, would attract “a really unique collection of local and chain stores to have a neighborhood presence and be a destination, and it captured that for a little while.”
Fuhrman never harbored plans to work as a lawyer for the long term, so as she toured the station showing the progress to Congressmen and Senators she became entranced with the possibilities of the space. As a long time lover of hats, she decided to give it a shot as a milliner. The Union Station store opened in 1990. A Dupont location soon followed in 1995.
Fuhrman opened her Georgetown shop in 2001. It was a perfect fit for her since she was a Georgetowner herself. In the same month she opened the store on P St. and moved with her husband Joe Kerr (who also helps out running the business) into a new house across the street.
It also sells books:
And much more, including, of course, hats:
Hard Times for Small Shops
2001 was not a great year to open a shop in Georgetown. Besides national issues depressing tourism, we had our own local issues stemming from randomly exploding manholes. To fix them, the city initiated in the Georgetown Project, a massive construction project that tore up the roads every night, which presented a challenge to businesses and residents alike.
But Proper Topper survived these early difficulties. Fuhrman knew that being just off of Wisconsin Ave. was going to present a challenge of its own, but she saw a growing concentration of more upscale shops along Book Hill with new stores such as Sassanova, Urban Chic, and Sugar. She hoped that this development would lead to more foot traffic in the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, Proper Topper and the other stores of Book Hill have seen the opposite occur. Fuhrman says she thought “now that there’s more businesses that will be bringing people up to this neighborhood then things will pick up, but business has actually gotten worse. And from talking to [the owners of the other boutiques] business is bad for all of them.” There just is not much tourist traffic and there is even less business from Georgetowners ourselves.
A Call to Arms
In this month’s CAG newsletter, Fuhrman plans to publish a piece calling on Georgetowners to do more to support our local shops. The thrust of the article is that if we don’t use them, we’ll lose them. She writes:
As I look at shops around me, I remember the clichéd warning on the first day of law school: Look to your left, look to your right; only one of you will be here next year. I wonder which of my fellow businesses –my own included – will remain a year from now?…I’ve been fascinated by the success of The 3/50 Project, a movement started just less than a year ago by a retailer in Minneapolis who decided she needed to find a way to talk to her customers about what they could do to help turn around this crisis…The basic theory: Choose 3 businesses you’d miss if they were gone. Commit to spend at least $50 in each of them, each month. ($50 you’d spend anyway, but targeted on local businesses you like – not big boxes in the ‘burbs or on the internet.)
The key to this approach is not to ask people to spend $50 they wouldn’t otherwise spend, but to shift that spending from other businesses outside our neighborhood to ones right here.
Why do this? Because once small businesses are gone, they don’t come back. An alarming reality is emerging in Georgetown. It is becoming a home of loss leaders. In other words, stores in Georgetown make so little off their Georgetown stores that the only reason to stay is to keep the cache of having a Georgetown store. This affects chains and independents alike. Pottery Barn’s Georgetown outpost was long the company’s worst performer on the entire East Coast. That’s why they’re closing up shop. In the case of Proper Topper itself, its Dupont Circle store does ten times the business of its Georgetown store.
There are a lot of factors that contribute to this situation. Topping that list is real estate prices. But Georgetowners’ buying patterns play into it as well.
The first step towards shifting your spending to local stores is simply knowing what we have. GM has lived in Georgetown for seven years and he still is finding out about stores he’s never noticed before. Once you’re aware of what you can find with a five minute walk, it can radically shift your whole buying patterns.
So Come Take a Look
So take the first step towards ensuring the future of Georgetown’s vibrant and diverse retail environment; come on down to Proper Topper and pick out your new spring outfit or take home a new umbrella. And what better time to stop by than this coming Saturday’s Fashionisspinach.com’s pop-up shop: