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Ardmore's downtown disrupter: PucciManuli's owner has a vision

Carrie Kohs wants to help make the Main Line enclave a great retail destination again, one that works with Suburban Square rather than competes with it.

Business owner and activist Carrie Kohs surveys the construction site for a controversial mixed-use project just off Lancaster Avenue by developer Carl Dranoff that will bring residential units and retail to downtown Ardmore.
Business owner and activist Carrie Kohs surveys the construction site for a controversial mixed-use project just off Lancaster Avenue by developer Carl Dranoff that will bring residential units and retail to downtown Ardmore.Read moreMATTHEW HALL

Sometimes, it takes an outsider to shake things up. In Ardmore's case, someone to shout, praise and draw attention to its charms, walkability, access to mass transit, architecture, and potential as "the Gateway to the Main Line."

Carrie Kohs, a 47-year-old Detroit native who owns PucciManuli, a toy and gift store, has taken up the cause to reverse decades-long decline. Her mission: to make downtown Ardmore a retail destination again, one that works in tandem with Suburban Square, nurtures independent shop owners and restaurants, and hosts a variety of events year-round to draw visitors.

She has just opened in a new location on a high-profile Lancaster Avenue corner, with more than double the space of her former store nearby. Of the store's made-up Italian name, Kohs said: "Whenever I'd say, `That's so PucciManuli,' I meant it was the best of class. That's what I try to sell."

In 2006, she started selling toys, baby clothes, and other items from all over the world online, then became a regular at horse shows such as the Hampton Classic in Bridgehampton, N.Y., and at Devon. In 2012, she opened a pop-up shop in a 200-square-foot space at the Ardmore Farmers Market at Suburban Square. A year later, it expanded to 350 square feet, then in 2013 she moved to a 700-square-foot store on Cricket Avenue.

"The reaction is what I was hoping for," an elated Kohs said Sept. 22, opening day at her new store. It was past closing time, but she didn't dare turn away customers who came late.

Erwann Michel-Kerjan, 41, of Wynnewood, a partner at McKinsey & Co. and a former Wharton professor, was among them and was amazed to see brands from France, where he is originally from.

"I love it. But that's the test," he said, alluding to 5-year-old Bella, who eagerly got on a Stevens Bros. rocking horse she named "Alice." Bella also picked up a $9 bottle of non-toxic silver glitter nail polish and a $25 handmade hen chick stuffed animal for her 2-year-old sibling before leaving PucciManuli with her father.

Kohs spent weeks preparing for a seamless move by emailing her regulars.

"I was worried when construction of the Dranoff project started that it would affect  business," she said, referring to developer Carl Dranoff's $50 million mixed-use bet on Cricket Avenue called One Ardmore Place, which will include 110 residential units and 8,400 square feet of retail on the ground level. "I have been telling everyone that parking has not been affected here."

She welcomes the traffic. "Suburban Square has always been a destination. Some … have no clue that there is another business district on the other side. We are literally just a few stores down. It will take a variety of steps to change that," she said. "Lower Merion Township and property owners on Anderson Avenue, the entryway to Suburban Square, have to take ownership in making that happen."

Because, Kohs said, "What's happening right now on this side of the tracks is a great thing."

She ticked off independent businesses along Rittenhouse Place, Ardmore Avenue, and Cricket Avenue, such as Lulu's Casita, an indoor play space, and the Japanese noodle house Maido and restaurant Poke' Ono that "are a total complement to Suburban Square and the national chains and restaurants over there."

She advocates changing the offerings in many of the older buildings along Cricket Avenue, and has appeared numerous times before the Lower Merion Township Commissioners to push for a more walkable business district.

"It would be fantastic to get service-oriented businesses and get them to move to the second floors, and make way for great retailers and restaurants to occupy the first floors," Kohs said, citing the just-opened Nudy's Cafe as an example.

She gives credit to landlords such as Pete Staz and Peter Spain, who have been buying up old buildings along Cricket Avenue and sprucing them up.

Four years ago, Kohs organized Cricket Cringle, fashioned after a European Christmas market. Last year, the event drew just over 10,000 people, and she has developed similar events to attract visitors.

"As a retailer, Carrie has brought a wonderful design aesthetic to her space and by extension to Cricket Avenue," said Christine Vilardo, executive director of the Ardmore Initiative business improvement district. "She has 'branded' the block."

On Kohs' side is Dranoff, who 10 years ago pitched the mixed-use project for Cricket Avenue near PucciManuli's former location. One Ardmore Place broke ground in March after years of neighborhood resistance and a protracted court battle. Concrete for the first floor was poured last week.

"Carrie is a high-energy, type-A personality," Dranoff said. "She has been a great advocate for our project and what Ardmore could be. She sees the need for critical mass as I do. She is a disrupter, not a status-quo person. It takes new retail to disrupt old retail, like new technology disrupts the old technology."

For Kohs, the giant crane in front of Dranoff's project is a symbol that Ardmore's fortunes are rising.

"This is going to be fantastic," she said, looking up as twilight set in.