Why Are So Many Washington Vintage Stores Closing Their Doors?

RIP, It’s Vintage Darling, Black-Eyed Susie, and Annie Creamcheese. We’re going to miss you.

Columbia Heights' It's Vintage Darling is one of three Washington vintage stores to close in the past three months. Photograph by Erik Uecke.

The local fashion community has been abuzz with the unfortunate news that several local vintage stores are closing their doors. Columbia Heights shops It’s Vintage Darling and Black-Eyed Susie have gone out of business, and, with nothing more than a sign on the window,  Georgetown mainstay Annie Creamcheese—once favored by visiting celebs such as Victoria Beckham and Nicole Richie—abruptly announced it’s shuttering here and moving to Los Angeles.

Could this be the start of a discouraging trend for independent boutiques and businesses in DC? 

Thankfully, in many cases, the stats point to no. According to a 2012 report by Cushman & Wakefield, a global commercial property broker with offices in the District, Washington, DC, is one of the most desirable locations for retailers both local and national. This is one of the highest-income metropolitan areas in the country. Seven of the ten richest counties in America are DC suburbs. In a study published last year, Arlington, the District proper, and Alexandria were ranked fourth, eighth, and ninth respectively in a nationwide survey of towns that spend the most of their discretionary income on clothing

The Washington fashion scene has been gaining some traction in response to these rising numbers—national and international brands such as AllSaints, Rag & Bone, Suitsupply, Henri Bendel, Charles Tyrwhitt, and Jack Spade have all opened Washington shops in the past two years in direct response to increased local demand for their products. 

Unfortunately, it seems the appetite for vintage apparel is not growing at the same rate, and these shops are falling victim to the more common pitfalls of being smaller-end retailers.

Two of the biggest hindrances of small-business success are accessibility and the rising cost of rent, both of which could have played into the demise of It’s Vintage Darling and Black-Eyed Susie.  

“It’s hard for any small, independent business to thrive in DC because of the exorbitant price of retail space,” says Holly Thomas, editor of Refinery 29 DC and co-owner of vintage showroom Butler & Claypool. “In most cases, the only brick-and-mortar spaces that are affordable are so far off the beaten path that retailers can’t get the foot traffic they need to stay in business.”

Though Black-Eyed Susie and It’s Vintage Darling technically resided on the newly gentrified strip of 14th Street (the Cushman & Wakefield report specifically calls the area “primed for retail success”), their addresses were well past the Columbia Heights Target, in an area that has yet to become the shopping destination of the better-traversed blocks just a short distance south. Adding insult to geographical injury, at this point, the move in that direction isn’t a likely possibility. According to Cushman & Wakefield, “Rents are rising and vacancies are filling fast.”

As for Georgetown’s Annie Creamcheese, the rent, to quote Jimmy McMillan, may be just “too damn high.” According to Cushman & Wakefield, it’s a staggering $130 per square foot per year—the highest of any neighborhood in the District. And after majority owner Garrett Bauman parted ways with creative lead Annie Lee and she opened her own shop, we feel that there has been a distinct decline in the quality of the merchandise, which may have led to a decline in sales. 

Elsewhere in the city, the cost of keeping a retail space open and thriving has made other purveyors of curated vintage goods start to rethink the business model, opting to run their emporiums as appointment-only showrooms instead of full-fledged stores. Not long ago we reported on the merits of the shopping experiences provided by Thomas’s Butler & Claypool and Katherine Martinez’s La Petite Marmoset, another vintage purveyor in the city. 

So how to account for the success of the shops that are still standing? Thomas says vintage boutiques really need to find a niche in order to keep customers coming back. 

“Dr. K Vintage and Treasury are great examples of stores that have cultivated a distinct aesthetic—it’s not just a hodgepodge, and their clients appreciate that,” she says. “At this point, consumers really want a complete experience, and the stores that can offer that have a better chance of surviving.”

Taking that wisdom to heart, the owners of Treasury put Adams Morgan’s Meeps through a major overhaul when they took over the much-beloved vintage haunt last November. By diversifying the experience and adding a dedicated performance space, they also gave Meeps customers a reason to return to the space beyond just moseying through the racks.

The owners of Annie Creamcheese, Black-Eyed Susie, and It’s Vintage Darling did not respond to our requests for comment for this article. One possible reason: As evidenced by Yola founder Laura Smith’s honest first-person essay about closing her Dupont yogurt shop, watching the business into which you poured your heart, soul, and life savings do anything less than succeed is a hard thing. We here at Shop Around send our condolences and applaud their contributions to our city’s fashion community.