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The Margaret Cleveland in Bolton Hill is an Experience for All the Senses

Christopher Heller—also the newly minted owner of Walther Gardens—runs the kind of enchanted place where you press your nose against the window to get a glimpse inside.
Owner Chris Heller in his Bolton Hill store. —Photography by Marlayna Demond

It’s hard to believe that Christopher Heller didn’t grow up in Baltimore.

The 46-year-old owner of the enchanted Margaret Cleveland home and garden shop in Bolton Hill is an avid city bike rider, a graduate of the master gardener program at University of Maryland Extension, and the newly minted owner of the beloved Walther Gardens, the northeast Baltimore nursery and gift shop with the oldest snowball stand in the country.

Not bad for a kid from Lancaster, who was always dreaming of bigger things. After graduating from college with a graphic design degree from the Art Institute in Philadelphia, Heller found himself working as a creative director for a dot-com start-up. That job landed him a bigger job in Florida, and while he watched his career skyrocket, he also missed the other things that brought him joy, including painting, floral design, and landscaping. In 2004 he decided to take a chance and start his own brand development firm, Helium Creative.

A few years after Heller started Helium, he hired a smart guy named Ryan Sirois to serve as head graphic designer, and the attraction was instantaneous. The two married in 2015 and their twins, Connor and Olivia, were born in 2017. Between marriage and babies, they also bought a Lancaster fixer-upper to serve as home base when they visited from Florida, and act as an Airbnb in between. “I spent 10 days ripping it apart. It was the first time I was able to be creative again,” Heller says.

As the toddlers approached their second birthday, Heller and Ryan Sirois Heller began wondering if Florida was where they wanted to raise their family. “We wanted them to be raised up north, to have seasons, and be in a place they could be enriched and grow into the beings they are supposed to be,” says Heller.

Lancaster was too far from the airport, Georgetown too expensive, and Philadelphia just didn’t feel right. On a whim, Heller drove into Homeland one afternoon on his way to the airport. “This neighborhood checks off every box, but it’s Baltimore,” he told Ryan. “Baltimore was not at all on our radar.”  They flew back the following weekend and looked at 15 houses—taking turns so one could stay in the car with the twins—until they both walked out of one house with the same feeling: “This is it.” They moved into a lakefront stone house in Homeland just in time for Halloween 2019.

Five months later, the pandemic forced Heller to slow down, travel less, and introduced him to Zoom. He realized his Florida-based business could still thrive with him sitting in Baltimore. When he started looking for an office space outside his home, Sirois Heller nudged, “Why don’t you launch the Margaret Cleveland in tandem?” It was an idea that had been brewing—a small, curated shop that would give him the creative outlet he’d been craving.

One day, his bike ride took him to Bolton Hill, and a storefront being used as an accountant’s office across from the restaurant CookHouse caught his eye. He called the owner and asked if they would ever consider selling the property. Five months later, they closed on the building and the Margaret Cleveland, named for his grandmother, a descendant of President Grover Cleveland, was theirs.

Heller may have stumbled across Bolton Hill by chance, but both he and his husband have ties to the neighborhood. Heller’s grandfather once lived on Park Avenue, a block away, and Sirois Heller’s mother attended the Maryland Institute College of Art and lived on the same block were the shop resides. “It’s such a special neighborhood in the city,” Heller says.

They spent the next year renovating—and turning the accounting office into a shop that felt worthy of the grand name. Originally, the walls were orange, the floors a light wood, and the space choppy. Now it’s light, airy, and dreamy, with floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked full of housewares and sweet knickknacks, plants, and gardening finds.

Heller also redid the landscaping, painted the building a light gray, and made it the kind of place where you press your nose against the window to get a glimpse inside.

“It’s the place that you’ve always wanted to go, with all the things you never knew you had to have,” he says. “A curated collection of treasures and keepsakes.”

The doors officially opened in October 2021—just in time for Bolton Hill’s popular Festival on the Hill.

Heller’s big concern was that with one extra thing on his plate he’d be spending more time away from the twins and his husband. “I didn’t want this store to take away from family and being able to be present.” Instead, both Connor and Olivia, now six, have helped unpack boxes and even suggested the family go on an antiquing excursion during a recent trip to Charleston, laughs Heller. “The store is going to add another layer to us both as people and as a family.” Over the holidays, budding salesman Connor presented an ornament to a shopper when she asked him to point out his favorite. “If you get it, you have to get three,” he said earnestly. (She did.) Unlike their other business, this one is tangible. The children can understand the concept and see the process.

The building, which also includes apartments and a courtyard, has allowed Sirois Heller to showcase his art. The carriage house is also being used as a space for his sound healing workshops and Heller’s floral classes.

“This building has allowed both of us space,” says Heller. “We’ve been one with Helium, but now we are each giving each other space to explore outside of Helium.”

He’d love to launch more Margaret Clevelands into the world, but also wonders if it can exist without him. “I want to be the one you are associating with the Margaret Cleveland. It means so much to me.” Right now, that means their hours are mostly “the first weekend of the month, by happenstance, and by appointment.”

“Retail is dying because it’s not what it used to be,” he muses. “But this is experiential. I want people to come in and feel something and be excited.” So far that’s included fresh flowers for Valentine’s Day and s’mores in the courtyard over the holidays.

Now he’s also dreaming of a plot of land off Walther Avenue. He bought Walther Gardens in March. It’s new to him, but he understands the affection the city feels for the shop, especially its neighbors. “That place is everything I’ve ever dreamed of,” he says. The plan is a spring re-opening of Walther and a long list of ideas, including fresh-cut flowers, a demonstration garden, and seasonal treats. The snowball stand will be called “The Peggy” after his great-grandmother.

It seems like a lot of new projects all at once, but Heller has this even-keeled, super-competent way about him that makes you believe he can do anything he sets his mind to. He says it’s his passion that drives him.

“If you don’t have the passion, you’ll never make it in retail. There is so much freaking work that goes into this. But I love it,” he says.