Off the Beaten Path: Kensington

There's a little piece of shopping heaven in Kensington, Md., for those who don't need a cup of Starbucks to walk around with or a bite to eat while shopping. You won't find either on the west side of Howard Avenue where it crosses Connecticut Avenue in Kensington. In fact you won't even find sidewalks there.

What you'll find is a smattering of warehouses chock full of antiques and furniture from all over the world. Shop owners describe the west side of Howard Avenue as the best kept shopping secret in the Washington area. With very little marketing aside from word of mouth, the shopping area has been mostly frequented by interior designers, antiques collectors and a few people in the know.

"I don't think there's a place between here and New York where you have as many diverse resources on one street," says Lori Chaikin, owner of Sparrows, a West Howard Avenue store that specializes in French antique furniture, fine art and accessories.

Shop owners on West Howard Avenue will also tell you not to confuse their section of the strip with Antiques Row on the other side of Connecticut Avenue. The east side of Howard Avenue is a neatly packaged shopping district of antiques shops, bookstores and coffee shops.

"Antique Row is a little more sedate and polished and predictable. Whereas on our side of the street, it's a big treasure hunt," says Deb Sagerholm, owner of Marco Polo's Treasures, a retailer that specializes in Southeast Asian antiques.

Antiques and furniture dealers started filtering into West Howard Avenue about 20 years ago, according to Sagerholm. The area really started out as a place to take your car for repairs. Then some antiques dealers, such as Sparrows, started moving in because of the warehouse space. There's also a little intrigue associated with a warehouse district. "People like poking around and discovering," Chaikin says.

And there's little interest in making the area prettier with sidewalks and landscaping. Shop owners feel like it's part of the appeal of West Howard Avenue. But they do want some better signage. Right now, if you take the Connecticut Avenue exit off the Beltway and head toward Kensington, signs will direct you to take a right onto Howard Avenue toward Antiques Row. But nothing points to the left side where the warehouse shopping is based. Shop owners are working with Montgomery County to get some signage to also direct cars to the west side. And Chaikin says there is some interest in bringing in a restaurant, which could drive more traffic to the area.

Most of the shops owners travel overseas to bring back antiques and furniture, as well as new or restored pieces. Sagerholm of Marco Polo's travels regularly to Indonesia, Thailand and China to bring back new and old pieces to sell. For example, she has a 7-foot free-standing staircase of Japanese origin that sells for $1,625. She also brought back miniature paintings from New Dehli, which were done more than 100 years ago. Those go for $225.

Chaikin's shop has been on West Howard Avenue since 1985 when the area was known as Gasoline Alley because of all the auto body shops. Her inventory includes a French art nouveau pitch pine and marquetry bookcase that dates back to 1910 and sells for $3,200. She also has a French art deco wrought iron dining table with a marble top from 1935 that sells for $8,800.

The shopping area has also attracted some non-antique shops. Amicus Green Building Center sells environmentally friendly and energy smart materials. Several restoration companies have taken up space there as well, including Ayler's Restoration, which restores antique furniture, and Wimsatt & Associates Art Conservation, which restores paintings, gilt frames and other art. As It Should Be Cabinetry & Builders makes custom cabinets.

So are you a West Howard Avenue shopper? What have you found there? Where else do you shop that's off the beaten track? Post a comment below.

By Tania Anderson |  February 7, 2008; 3:00 AM ET Off the Beaten Path
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Nice site!

Posted by: Nikolet | March 18, 2008 12:46 PM

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