Small businesses show signs of life on busy Md. 27 -- Gazette.Net


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When Kate Lewis decided nearly 30 years ago to start her own photography business, she put a small sign above her mailbox on Md. 27 south of Damascus.

Speeding drivers kept hitting the sign as they came over the hill, and snowplows would sometimes knock it down.

“But then my husband put out a bigger sign, and my phone started ringing like crazy. I think it’s from being on a busy highway,” Lewis said about living on a main road that connects I-70 in Mount Airy and fast-growing Clarksburg.

Lewis is not alone. At least two other small businesses also have benefited from the drive-by traffic on Md. 27 (Ridge Road).

Nearby is Appleby’s Antiques, which has operated for three generations on the first floor of the family home, which started as a four-room farmhouse and later became an inn before the Applebys bought it in the 1940s.

Meanwhile, relatively new to Damascus is Bob’s Limousine Service, owned by Bob Cherian of Montgomery Village. Cherian has an office next to Tucker’s gas station in the center of town, but also parks one of his three limousines at a friend’s house on Md. 27, north of town, to promote the service for proms, weddings, business trips and airport service.

Long known for her wedding work, Lewis said she fell into photography by chance. She was 22 and working as a secretary for a public relations man at the Atomic Industrial Forum in Washington, D.C. When he left, the librarian who filled in asked her to cover a meeting at the Washington Hilton hotel.

“She handed me the camera and said, ‘Just focus and take a picture,’” Lewis said with a laugh. She kept taking photos.

After she married, she took photography classes at Montgomery College and later went to work for Lifetouch National School Studios in Baltimore, where she handled school accounts for 25 years before retiring.

When she started her own business in 1984, she got some customers through the sign in front of the house, but she also was active in her children’s schools and in the Girl Scouts, which also brought her work.

As time went on, she switched to digital photography and updated her website, building her business to the point that she took on Colleen O’Neill to help her shoot weddings, parties and family portraits,

“For me, what works [now] is word of mouth,” said Lewis, who now is taking wedding photos for the daughters of brides she photographed years ago.

Recently, she also has taken head shots of employees for businesses.

“I was already known for doing social affairs, so people called me for their businesses,” Lewis said.

Like Lewis, Appleby’s Antiques also attracts customers with its large sign on Md. 27, said owner John Appleby, who took over management of the first-floor store in 2000. Open Wednesdays through Sundays, it is chock-full of paintings, prints, books, dolls, china, glass and furniture.

Appleby is the third generation to run the store, which his grandmother started in the early 1970s. She studied painting at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. “I grew up around the business,” Appleby said.

The business has changed with the market. “People don’t buy things anymore just to collect like they did in the 1980s,” he said. “Today, they buy [single items] more for their functionality and for decoration.”

Appleby said he goes to estate sales and buys from individuals in Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia and West Virginia.

He said he made it through the recession by lowering some prices.

One reason Appleby’s Antiques has survived when so many others have failed is because of its relatively low overhead. It also has a reputation for honesty, Appleby said.

“We do some advertising in the Yellow Pages, and I’ll sometimes post something on Craigslist, but a lot is through word of mouth,” he said.

Although Bob’s Limousine Service is relatively new to town, Cherian isn’t. He previously sold cellphones in the area and has known the community for 10 years.

“I like the small-town look and feel — that’s what attracted me to it,” he Cherian.

He saw an opportunity to provide a service Damascus didn’t have. “I don’t think there’s any other limo company,” he said.

In business nearly three years, Cherian does all of the driving himself. That gives him a chance to get to know his clients, which he said is paying off with referrals and repeat business.

The limo with the sign on the side parked on Md. 27, north of town, also reminds people who drive by of the service.

“It’s a way to find me by my telephone number,” he said.

vterhune@gazette.net