In about 48 hours, Watson's Garden Center will be no more. The family-run nursery and garden supply store that has been a community touchstone for more than 60 years will close for good at 4 p.m. on Sunday, after that living only in the memories of its thousands of customers who relied on it for landscaping supplies and holiday decorations since 1955.
Owner Henry Marconi, a distant in-law of the original founders, filed paperwork with Baltimore County in November to construct a 16,000-square-foot retail center on the 1.32-acre property at 1620 York Road in Lutherville-Timonium. Once completed, the retail complex could house up to nine tenants.
Reached by phone on Thursday, Marconi said he did not have time to talk because the going-out-of-business sale was keeping him frenetically busy, plus he was "playing Mr. Mom" after work.
Watson's Fireplace & Patio, a separately owned spin-off of the garden center that is located next door at 1616 York Road, will remain open, says its owner Steve Watson.
The buzz surrounding the closure of the store indicates just how embedded Watson's Garden Center is in the community.
The original Watson's began when founder Joe Watson returned home from four years in the Air Force. His father wanted him to find steady, gainful employment and happened to have a poker buddy who was looking to unload a property at 6 West Chesapeake Avenue in Towson. The property, housed in an old livery stable, was already a garden shop, and the Watsons saw no need to change that. So, once he father paid $7,000 to the state to settle outstanding debts on the property, Watson's was born.
"I stumbled my way through the first month," recalls Joe Watson, now 84 and retired from the business. "I got on my feet and we had a nice business going. In September, my brother Jimmy got out of the Marine Corps, and I talked to him about joining me because I thought I could do better
with two people."
In 1961, the county earmarked the property for urban renewal and the Watsons—now including a third brother, Bobby—had to decide what to do next.
"We didn’t know what to do," admits Joe. "We decided that the place we’d like to go to is at York and Seminary in Lutherville. Lots of development going on there at the time."
So in 1961, the Watsons moved the business to its familiar location at 1620 York Road. It was an instant success.
"We did more business in a weekend in Lutherville than we did in a month in Towson," says Joe, who now splits his time between Florida and Timonium.
And that's how it went for the next 40 or so years, with the business continually expanding to include greenhouses in the '70s and then the adjacent fireplace and patio business in 1986, which Joe ran on his own, leaving the garden center in the hands of his brothers Jimmy and Bobby, who eventually sold their portions to Henry, a cousin of Bobby's wife.
"We had a lot of enthusiasm. A lot of nice employees and customers. A lot of kids from Dulaney High School, who were just great," Joe recalls.
While after-school employment was one way Baltimore County kids and families came to know the business, the holidays—particularly Christmas—were another.
"We were in the Christmas business from day one," says Joe. "We sold trees and wreaths down Chesapeake Avenue. When we moved to York, on the advice of one of the salesmen, we mimicked a store in Philadelphia that had a winter wonderland-type display."
Over the years, the store became a destination for Christmas decorations, including nutcrackers, poinsettias, lights, fresh-cut trees and wreaths, and specialty items like Ravens and Orioles-themed ornaments.
Its Christmas displays also regularly featured live animals, including, famously, reindeer.
"A friend of my brother Bobby’s had reindeer up in Parkton. They arranged to bring one of them down, and it became very popular," explains Joe. "Seems like wherever I travel, if I talk to someone from Baltimore and I say, 'I’m from Watson’s Garden Center,' they say, 'Oh! my father took me out there to see the reindeer.' The state wouldn’t let us keep them because you can’t vaccinate a deer for rabies."
Joe sold the Fireplace & Patio business to his son, Steve, "five or six years ago," and has been pleased to see it thrive. Indeed, Steve says he plans to expand the services on offer at Watson's Fireplace & Patio now that the garden center is closing.
"We’re going to carry some of the things they had, so for some people they won’t miss a beat," says Steve, citing propane refills and grills among the services he plans to offer or expand upon at his establishment. However, "I don’t think plants are going to be in my future." he admits.
Though there is no word what businesses may eventually take the place of Watson's Garden Center, Steve is hopeful they'll be complementary to his.
"We obviously, if I had my way, it would be something to draw women between the ages of 30 and 60. That’s my clientele," he says. "I think [Henry] will do his best to pick the right businesses. But I don’t know how much control one has over it if you turn it over to a management company."
For Joe, the loss cuts deep, but he is also pragmatic about it.
"My heart and soul was in the garden center for 30 years," he says. "It was a fun place to shop. I was sorry to see it close. However, if I were Henry, I would probably do the same."