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Flooded Ellicott City businesses offer rescued goods and hope

“Ellicott City: If you lived here, you’d love it!” insists a four-foot plastic sign hanging off a plastic fold-out table. A real estate agent dodges a picnic table covered in empanada crumbs, making small talk and handing out flyers picturing stately, new-looking homes on lush lawns.

Mt. Ida, a mustard-yellow mansion built in 1828 for Ellicott City’s founder’s grandson, casts a welcome shadow over the vegetable tents. The location is temporary, but for the regular produce merchants at the weekly Ellicott City Old Town Market, this Saturday morning is like any other. Local peppers gleam. Local corn costs 50 cents an ear. Local residents share local gossip over stacks of local fruit. A guitarist strums a background hum into a lackluster microphone. Business is good.

But to the left of the farmer’s market, past the concrete parking lot and onto grass humming with mosquitos, the bustle gives way to tired eyes and charity-drive t-shirts inscribed: “RISE ABOVE THE WATER.”

When the “thousand-year flood” claimed Old Town Market’s Saturday parking lot space, it also claimed the livelihoods of small business owners up and down Main Street. The flash flood of July 30 turned the historic mill town into a raging river with water as high as its restaurant awnings. The water gutted some businesses; insurance woes and petulant landlords plagued others.

For these flood victims, each week brings a new headache. But on Saturdays, those that can manage it are here, sitting under red pop-up tents and wiping away sweat and selling what they can.

A sign advertising “Rescue Jewelry: $10!” points customers to a novelty: something that survived the flood. The vintage pearls and sparkling statement necklaces, painstakingly pulled weeks ago from the muddy wreckage of the Vintage Vault, look good as new.

A Journey From Junk is an eclectic clothing shop whose storefront’s sidewalk was replaced by a four-foot ditch. It now boasts two tents at the market filled with dresses, garish Maryland flag bow-ties and socks patterned with pizza and pile-of-poo emojis.

Nearby store Shoemaker Country spreads tables of elegant home decor out in front of the tent. “No adult supervision,” says a painted black placard defiantly, perched against the leg of a fold-out table in the steamy sunshine.

Sweet Elizabeth Jane used to be in an old department store built right over the docile Tiber River. During the flood, that river burst through their floor and wall, leaving a bombed-out skeleton of a building. Today, they wear and sell matching custom t-shirts, five employees lined up in a row like uniformed soldiers. “Flooded with HOPE,” their black shirts say in highlighter blue.

Across the grass, Donna Sanger sits alone, wearing a white “Help Ellicott City” t-shirt. Her store, Park Ridge Trading Company, a gourmet grocery stocking flavored olive oils and handmade pasta, opened only four months ago. Today, she sells the smattering of goods that are left. “It’s amazing, the things that were lost and that weren’t,” she said, gesturing toward a table of glassware. “Our huge, heavy old wood furniture got swept away. But all this glass, we rescued. It’s really amazing.” All sanitized, she assures.

Hilary Brich, owner of yoga store and studio Gogo Guru, sells a round-faced pre-teen a lavender flax-seed eye pillow. Long-haired and bespectacled, wearing her own stretchy black yoga merchandise, Brich folds her tall, thin frame into a too-short lawn chair.

Brich sits by two clothing racks and a single table, covered in orange and red $100 yoga mats and long-sleeved cotton tops ethically made in India. “It’s almost fall!” she insists, wiping her forehead in the muggy summer heat. A girl in a Pokémon cap peruses the jewelry on the table.

Gogo Guru was barely damaged by the flood itself, but that made the space valuable property; the following rent hike was more than Brich’s business could take.

“We’re supposed to be out soon,” she sighed. Higher-paying tenants from the lower end of Main Street will soon move into the studio. After six unsuccessful weeks of negotiating with the building’s landlord, she gave up and went public, posting a plea for fairness and unity on Facebook. “I’m usually the shy, non-political type,” Brich said. “But this is it. I don’t know what else to do.”

Brich listened intently as a man from her yoga class chattered about his back troubles. The lawyers and the paperwork and the tragedy seemed to melt away; her customer had her undivided attention. 

The Ellicott City Old Town Market takes place every Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Mt. Ida in Ellicott City.