Sunday, August 1, 2010

Apple's first Philadelphia store

"The tall 20-something stood at the corner of 16th and Walnut Streets, squinting at his surroundings in the bright morning sun.

"Do you know where the new Apple store is?" he asked the man next to him, as he adjusted his backpack.

"There," the man said, pointing to a spot up Walnut, "but it doesn't open until 5."

It was 11 a.m., and at 1607 Walnut St., workers were rushing to finish the facade of the new store, some of it still hidden behind brown paper that kept the curious from sneaking a peek.

With hours to go before the first Apple store within the city limits opened, an almost festive atmosphere had begun to take hold of the venerable shopping district.

Even retailers sharing Walnut Street with Apple were energized.

"I'm beyond excited," said Ann Gitter, co-owner of KnitWit, the women's clothing chain with two stores within a block of Apple - at 1718 Walnut and 128 S. 17th St.

In fact, Gitter said she had been regularly popping in to Dana Bank's Town Home gift and jewelry store at 1616 Walnut, across the street from the Apple site, "to spy."

Bank said she actually went across the street last week and "knocked on the hard hat of one of the men working in front to find out when the store would open."

"I'm over-the-top about it," said Nick Berardi, president of the Rittenhouse Row organization and owner of the Richard Nicholas Hair Salon for Men at 1617 Sansom St.

The opening comes as business appears to be improving over 2009, which most retailers consider one of the worst years they have ever endured.

"Business has picked up since January, and this summer is much better than last," Gitter said.

Both she and Bank, who moved to her current location after several years on 19th Street, believe that Apple will boost traffic and bring more business for everyone.

Gitter said Apple would provide "husbands and boyfriends of my customers with something to occupy their time while they shopped."

For Linda Berman, owner of the Children's Boutique at 1702 Walnut, the arrival of the Apple store is just another example of the growing "user-friendliness" of the shopping district also known as Rittenhouse Row.

"Shopping on Walnut Street used to be intimidating" because the retail stores once catered primarily to well-to-do Philadelphians, said Berman, who has been in business for 43 years, the last 11 at her current location.

As Center City has grown in the last 15 years, retailers have tried to make shopping an easier and "much friendlier" experience, she said. Berman's children's clothing store, for instance, hosts birthday parties and has a changing room for babies.

The Apple store "will only increase the numbers of people who come here, drawing Drexel and Penn students and residents of other neighborhoods who would rather shop at this store than drive to the ones in the suburbs," Berman said.

Bank and Gitter said they'd be lining up at 5 to get a first look at the new store. "I'll see if I can get in earlier," Bank said, although not too hopefully.

Bank had company. A half hour before the door opened, hundreds had gathered outside the store, and 45 minutes after the opening, a line of 200 people stretched from in front of the store to 17th Street."

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