By  on October 16, 2006

SEATTLE — Here in the well-to-do Madison Park neighborhood, which slopes gently down to Lake Washington, it's rare when retail space becomes available.

So Ruth-Ellen Perlman pounced when she heard that a site was on the market. She opened a 500-square-foot fine jewelry store called Aree Perlman, at 4031 East Madison Street, in August 2004, becoming only the second jeweler in Madison Park.

"This is a very special little neighborhood," said Perlman, a former Microsoft communications and advertising executive who longed to go into business for herself. "Other Seattle neighborhoods have a funkier feel, but here it's kind of elegant. When I moved in, everybody came in and said, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood.' I felt I became part of something."

Madison Park, on the east edge of Seattle, has a four-block enclave of small, understated independent retailers, including the Maison Michel consignment shop; Pearson & Gray antique accessories for home and garden; Sostanza, an Italian restaurant; the Yankee Peddler classic men's and women's sportswear shop; the Martha E. Harris flower and gift shop, and Ann Marie lingerie. Rents are generally in the high $20s to low $30s per-square-foot range.

The area is virtually untouched by national chains that have overrun commercial districts across the U.S., helping to eliminate mom-and-pop shops.

There is a Starbucks, a Tully's, branches of the Washington Mutual, Wells Fargo and Bank of America banks — but no Gap, Talbots or Victoria's Secret. Big-name national brands can be found just 15 minutes away in downtown Seattle.

"Customers here are not looking for that kind of shopping experience," Perlman said. "There would be no encouragement."

"We're very interested in keeping a close-knit community," said Karen Binder, who runs the Madison Park Cafe, at 1807 42nd Avenue East. "There's a lot of looking out for each other, and there's not a lot of real estate for new businesses. The buildings are small and can't go above three stories."

Madison Park is not unlike other Seattle destinations that prefer homegrown retailers. Pike Place Market, Seattle's number-one tourist attraction, has crafts, fish stores and eateries and has maintained its local character.In Madison Park, there's a mix of old money from the lumbering industry and newer wealth, mainly from the high-tech sector, as well as doctors and lawyers.

Howard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks, has a home here and is said to take his Sunday coffee at the local Starbucks. The park, tennis courts and beach by the lake, with a majestic view of the Cascade Mountains, add to the charm.

Some families have summer cottages, and on a hot sunny day (unusual in rainy Seattle), there's a pilgrimage to the beach, generating more business for the stores of Madison Park, though merchants say the traffic is never unbearable.

"Some families have lived here forever," said Edward Washington, who runs his family-owned Scoop du Jour, 4029 East Madison Street, an ice cream parlor that offers 31 flavors, homemade cones and sandwiches. "I grew up here. I see the same customers three or four days a week."

At one time, the atmosphere was downright carnival-like. Madison Park was originally a private park, until a cable-car company bought the land and established an amusement park in the 1880s, explained Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Washington. It grew, with bands and vaudeville acts on floating stages, bath houses, piers and steamer rides across the lake, baseball fields and even a beer hall. "The town could have very well grown up around that," Ochsner said.

Decades later, all that disappeared, as did the cable cars. What's left is a serene scene — and a sense of community.

"It's like a small town within the city where everybody knows each other and supports each other," said Kate Etherington, who runs her family-owned Original Children Shop, 4216 East Madison Street. Besides the apparel and gifts, the store has a kids hair salon.

"When somebody gets sick, we can help, or if someone needs a driver to get to the grocery, we'll find them one," said Lola McKee, the 81-year-old owner of Madison Park Hardware, 1837 42nd Avenue East, which has been in business since 1941 and is seeing a changing clientele. "We don't have a lot of do-it-yourselfers anymore. Not too many home owners do their own repairs. But we do get a lot of handymen."Perhaps the area is less blue collar, which wouldn't be bad for certain upscale businesses, particularly Perlman's. She specializes in precious and semi-precious stones and estate jewelry from a mix of creators. For example, she has multicolored stone jewelry from Tucson designer Laura Gibson, as well as one-of-a kind pieces in colored diamonds and stones and 22-karat gold from local designer Claire Adams Kittle. Perlman won't sell anything flashy.

"I offer something that makes a statement,'' she said. "Something that doesn't scream, partly because people in this neighborhood like that and partly because that's what I like."

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