Ellen Shepp Ellen Shepp at Joan Shepp boutique on Walnut Street.

Iconic locally-owned boutique Joan Shepp will in September shut the doors of its Walnut Street location after 13 years in operation.

"It wasn't our decision," Shepp's daughter and business partner Ellen said yesterday. She said a new owner purchased the 1616 Walnut Street building, which encompasses two retail stores that he plans to consolidate into one larger multi-story outlet.

"They're looking for a corporate tenant," Shepp said. She said her business isn't the only one on the trendy shopping strip dealing with a shift toward chain retailers, pointing to the relocation last summer of high-end independent clothier Knit Wit from the 1700 block of Walnut Street.


"We're going through this influx where owners of the buildings are, at minimum, tripling the rents – most of them are more," Shepp said. "Independent stores can't afford those kind of rents, so when everybody's lease ends, they have to move. Owners of buildings are looking for corporate tenants who can pay what they want and, unfortunately, it's turning into a mall atmosphere."

Shepp said she's worried that the ambiance of the strip will suffer. "The charm that was on this street and the homey-ness and that small-town feel is now big signs, bright lights – that's what bigger stores have," she said.

"I think the owners of these buildings see such potential in making more money and I think it pins money against the aesthetic of the street or whatever neighborhood this is happening to," she said. "And money, unfortunately, is always going to win."

Next hot spot?

Shepp has no plans on leaving the area and is currently preparing for a new store opening. Though she couldn't yet disclose its location, she said, "It's only a hop, skip and a jump away."

"Joan and Ellen are Center City treasures," Shannon said. "We don't want them to go anywhere but Center City – that's where they belong. And I believe that they will find something that is still in the Rittenhouse Square area that will be suitable."

Shepp said a number of retail stretches are heating up in the wake of Walnut Street's corporate takeover. "I'll let you know where the next hot spot is when we open," she said.

"The trend is looking at Chestnut Street west now, where Knit Wit just relocated from Walnut Street," Shannon said.

"I think the good thing about this for us as a city is that we have an abundance of riches here and now they're starting to infill in other areas that weren't once as upscale. And because they're such destination retailers – Knit Wit and Joan Shepp – their clientele will follow them."

Room for everyone

Center City District vice president of marketing Michelle Shannon said there's a silver lining in the turnover.

"The good thing about all of this is that Walnut Street now is not the only great retail location in the city," she said. "The side streets like 18th and 19th and 16th are starting to fill in with local boutiques, as is Chestnut Street west, so I feel like it is really helping spread the wealth."

She said Rittenhouse Row's rent rise is a product of natural market forces as upscale national retailers continue to relocate there. "I really do think there's room for everyone," she said.

"I think that when a tourist comes to Center City, they want to go to a national or international retailer that they know and shop there. Particularly the international tourists want that high-end luxury national tenant."

"But what makes Philadelphia different is, unlike some other cities, we also have a very, very strong local boutique scene. That makes us not cookie-cutter."

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