Sunday, June 29, 2003

Brides-to-be marching down Reading streets

Somewhat old, somewhat new, gritty town's no longer so blue

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Lindsey Bashford of Springdale tries on gowns for her August wedding at Bridal & Formal on West Benson Street.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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READING - Here come the brides-to-be.

Every Saturday, they travel to this gritty Mill Creek Valley town in search of the perfect wedding dress, the most dazzling tiara, a cake so delicious that not a crumb will be left.

Against a backdrop of industry, railroad tracks and warehouses - an unlikely setting for a "Bridal Row" - they move from one shop to the next, family and bridesmaids in tow, skipping over worn streets and cracked sidewalks, chattering excitedly, and checking off one item after another as they plan the wedding of their dreams.

This is Reading's Bridal District, where 31 stores cater to future brides' every whim and desire.

It's not just a local draw. The shops here attract brides from all over the country, as well as from overseas, including a mix of celebrities.

And while it might seem out of place in an older, industrial town, it is flourishing here, one store attracting another, nurtured by city officials determined to keep it growing.

The hustle-and-bustle along Benson Street, Reading Road and Jefferson Avenue has made Reading the envy of other business-starved downtowns in cities up and down the Mill Creek Valley. No other nearby city has capitalized on a "niche" market as successfully as Reading's Bridal District.

"If the Bridal District wasn't there, (stores in Reading's historical downtown) wouldn't be as successful as they are," said Linda Fitzgerald, the city's economic development consultant.

[IMAGE] Suzanna Aufdemkampe models a wedding gown in the window of Reading's Classic Bride, one of 31 stores in the old industrial town that cater to brides-to-be
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How successful is that? Consider:

• Bridal & Formal, on West Benson Street, carries 4,000 bridal dresses - more than any competitor in the U.S., they say - and stocks such top designers as Vera Wang, Amsale, Reem Acra and Lazaro. Last year, the National Bridal Market Association recognized it as the nation's best bridal store.

"The stores of New York and Chicago didn't get chosen," co-owner Andy Star said.

"For us to be known as the best in the country, and (we're) right here in Reading, Ohio."

On one recent day, the store sold dresses to women from California, Arizona and Idaho and shipped gowns to Crete and Lithuania.

• The store Paris has sold hairpieces to supermodel Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and actresses Jenny McCarthy, Kirstie Ally and Peri Gilpin.

• The shops here carry virtually everything: Elegant satin gowns. Cakes with delicate icing to delight a party of 300. Jeweled tiaras. A plush limo, a playful photographer.

One recent Saturday, Joann Evans, 60, of Milford, was almost giddy at finding the perfect dress for her daughter, Cindy, on the first try.

"This was the first place. The first day we came. And the first dress she put on," Evans said.

"I'm amazed. I've never been any place like this. To me, this is overwhelming."

Beth Huber, 29, of Western Hills, found a wedding gown and a photographer here.

"It's nice to be within 20 minutes of a place that has probably the biggest selection in Ohio and the area," she said.

Local officials are delighted, too, with what's happening in the bridal district.

Although the shops generate a mere fraction of the city's annual $4.1 million in earnings-tax revenues, they have created a buzz that business leaders consider priceless.

"There is a real future for our business district with some major business contributors moving in, all because of the synergy that's been created by the bridal district," said Jim Stewart, president of the Reading Chamber of Commerce.

"You hate to say it, but you look over in Lockland, and they're struggling big time. They just don't have the same viable business district as Reading. There is a synergy that that whole thing has created."

'A neat little town'

Reading's friendly, small-town atmosphere is part of what has kept the businesses here, merchants say.

"I love the city," said Tina Gutierrez, who brought her European Bridal and Classic Bride shops here 14 years ago.

"The city government is really small, so you know the council members by name. They want to work with you. They want to see business succeed. You don't have to go through a lot of red tape."

Bridal & Formal was the district's "pioneer," opening behind a veterinarian's office in 1979.

Star is proud of the recognition his store has won, and what the businesses have meant to Reading.

"To have such a neat little industry in a neat little town is really a testament to this area," he said. "Some places are known for antiques. We're known for bridal. Reading is coming to terms with that. They weren't too sure about it at first. But now they realize how much business this brings to the community."

Patricia Lang, owner of Patricia's Weddings & Custom Cakes, is a Reading native who decided to return here when she finally found the gumption to open her own business.

"I knew that if I moved my business out of my home, I'd want to bring it back to Reading. It kind of made it the wedding capital of the United States," she said.

"The bridal thing has really helped Reading. We're here to pull a lot more bridal businesses here."

'It's all in one street'

In turn, the city is doing what it can to make life easier for the merchants and their customers. There are plans to demolish a run-down Benson Street home to provide more parking. And this summer, the city will embark on a $2.7 million streetscape project that should make the Reading Road corridor more attractive for shoppers.

But success isn't measured just by cash register tape or a balance sheet. It's measured also by the number of smiles flashed in these local shops and restaurants - especially on those busy Saturdays.

Proud father Mike Kennedy, of Huntington, W.Va., beamed when he saw his daughter, Brooke, in a flowing, princess-cut gown at Bridal & Formal.

For him and his wife, Margaret, the three-hour drive was worth it.

"Shoot!" he exclaimed. "You don't have to go any other place. It's all in one street."

On Bridal Row

Reading's Bridal District has just about everything a bride might desire for the perfect wedding day. The district includes:

Meier's Cafe, 419 W. Benson St.

Bridal Alterations by Lucy, 333 W. Benson St.

Centre Stage Productions, 320 W. Benson St.

Bridal & Formal, 300 W. Benson St.

European Bridal and Classic Bride, 307 W. Benson St.

Debra Moreland's Paris, 305 W. Benson St.

Cincinnati Bride, 301 Benson St.

Patricia's Cafe De'Jeuner, Patricia's Cakes and Patricia's Wedding Rentals & Accessories, 1009 Jefferson Ave.

Minda's Touch Floral & Crafts, 1000 Jefferson Ave.

Vanover Cleaners, 226 W. Benson St.

All About Brides, 214 W. Benson St.

Wedding Gateway, The Petal Pusher, 203 W. Benson St.

Sheer Necessities Lingerie, 201 W. Benson St.

Footwear 2 Dye 4, 149 W. Benson St.

Foley's Irish Pub & Restaurant, 200 W. Benson St.

Lifetime Events Photography, 132 W. Benson St.

Under Wraps Bridal Accessories, 137 W. Benson St.

Fancy Kids, 127 W. Benson St.

Simply Flowers, 1809 W. Galbraith Rd.

Aeration Decorations, 108 W. Benson St.

Precious Moments Photography, 12 W. Benson St.

Benson Street Bridal & Tuxedo, Talk of the Town, 9111 Reading Road

Reading Florist, 9121 Reading Road

Oasis Florist, 9188 Reading Road

Vonderhaar's Catering, 19 W. Pleasant St.

Creative Cake Designs, 1753 E. Galbraith Road.


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