Shopping to fill Lower Merion's retail needs

Heidi Tirjin talks with Seun Olubodun at his clothing store, Duke & Winston. He was interested in bringing his Northern Liberties styles to Bryn Mawr with a pop-up shop.
Heidi Tirjin talks with Seun Olubodun at his clothing store, Duke & Winston. He was interested in bringing his Northern Liberties styles to Bryn Mawr with a pop-up shop. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 02, 2013

 Heidi Tirjan's schedule was packed.

There were visits to a new bakery and a soon-to-open bookshop in Bryn Mawr, then off to Philadelphia to drop in on a couple of chic Northern Liberties retailers she thought should launch outlets in Lower Merion.

She also found time to revel in a luscious victory: persuading the owners of the highly regarded Philadelphia restaurant Melograno to open another eatery on the Main Line.

After years of wooing, Rosemarie Tran and Gianluca Demontis had succumbed to Tirjan's blandishments and their own desire, and are putting the finishing touches on Fraschetta, a restaurant they are opening near the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

"We talked about it for the past five years," Demontis said. "What we did here was my dream come true. What we're doing there is the restaurant that I wanted really to do."

Tirjan, 45, is Lower Merion Township's retail recruiter, a profession that screams for a reality-TV show. Call it Selling Lower Merion. Her competition? Haddonfield. Chestnut Hill. Wayne. Manayunk. Media.

Apparently, there are other retail recruiters around the country, including in Haddonfield and Chestnut Hill. This week, Tirjan and about 30 peers will attend a national conference for them in Washington.

It's a job with lots and lots of opportunities. Lower Merion, even with a median household income of about $107,000, has not been spared the sting of tough economic times. "For Sale/Lease" signs in empty storefronts proliferate on major commercial streets.

Business in the last six months has picked up - Tirjan said she's as busy now as she was in 2006, before the recession. Currently, the retail vacancy rate in the township is less than 10 percent, she estimated.

A township employee, Tirjan is paid about $40 per hour three days a week to fill retail vacancies.

She scouts out local commercial tenants for the Ardmore, Bala Avenue, Bryn Mawr, and Merion-Cynwyd shopping districts. Tirjan isn't looking for just any business - the township hired a consulting company in 2006 and 2007 to design a "merchandising-mix plan" that builds on the personality each area already had.

Different types of restaurants are sought for each district. Individual plans include: girls' and women's clothing and gift shops in Merion-Cynwyd; personal-care and women's accessory stores for Bala Avenue; home items and specialty stores in Ardmore; and jewelry and clothing in Bryn Mawr.

On a recent Thursday, Tirjan started her day in Bryn Mawr, checking in on progress at the old Medley Music store building that Chris Surgent, 26, bought and turned into three separate storefronts.

He leased one to Wynnewood resident Cathy Fierbach, 46, who is using the space for her first business, Main Point Books. When it opens in the next several months, it will fill a void left by the demise of Borders.

Tirjan showed Fierbach potential spots in Ardmore and Bryn Mawr for the store.

After leaving the bookstore, Tirjan walked with Surgent to a nearby free-standing building where the two gave prospective tenant Maria Delaney, owner of a Wayne clothing store, a tour. Delaney loved the space, but was thinking of something smaller for a women's accessory store.

"You find something new out every time you have a retailer come out to look at a space," Tirjan said as she drove later to Philadelphia. "For example, Maria, that was the first time I heard her say, 'Well, maybe an accessory store.' So now I have a whole new outlook on spaces I can show her."

In Northern Liberties, Tirjan chatted with Megan Brewster and Erin Waxman, both 35 and owners of the Art Star gallery and boutique. Tirjan had shopped at the store for a few years and decided it would be perfect for Lower Merion. One day, she introduced herself and asked if they had ever thought about a second location.

Brewster and Waxman liked the idea, but still aren't ready to open another full store. So on this day, Tirjan talked to them about testing the market by selling from a cart one weekend in the Bryn Mawr Film Institute concourse.

"I like the idea of doing a pop-up shop," Waxman said. Seun Olubodun, owner of the clothing store Duke & Winston, liked it, too. He was excited to team up with Art Star for a Northern Liberties-comes-to-Bryn Mawr pop-up day.

Tirjan suggested mid-to-late May.

"I can pull up our schedule," said Olubodun. "We have a lot of trunk shows in May." He said he would see if there was a free Saturday or Sunday he could set aside for the pop-up store.

Tirjan's workday was almost over, but not before she stopped at Melograno to chat with Demontis.

She's tired, but happy.

"It's a fun job."


Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or @carolyntweets on Twitter.

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