SALEM — The owners of a Marblehead business walked into A&J King Artisan Bakers in downtown Salem last year and were impressed.
While they liked the bakery, it was really the customers that blew them away.
"All we saw were young couples with kids," Rick Winter said. "We were just both amazed by it."
Last weekend, Winter and his partner, Monica Winter (no relation), opened their third Hip Baby Gear store. Although they moved to Salem for a variety of reasons, seeing all those young families didn't hurt.
Hip Baby Gear shares a Washington Street storefront with Two Girls Shop, which sells everything from home decor to skin care products and is another Marblehead business that has come across the border.
In the dead of winter and in the throes of a struggling economy, there are surprising signs of retail life in downtown Salem.
Mud Puddle Toys of Marblehead — is this a trend? — just signed a lease for the old Naumkeag Trust Co. building on the Essex Street pedestrian mall. It will be Mud Puddle's second store.
Last week, a young chef from Brooklyn and her boyfriend started work on Coven, an artisanal market and dessert bar that will open on the ground floor of the old C.F. Tompkins Furniture building at the other end of Essex Street.
A coffee importer from West Newbury and his wife bought a retail condo on the pedestrian mall for their first store, Cafe Valverde Coffee Roasters. The gourmet coffee shop is expected to open by the end of the month.
City officials, who are trying to rebuild the retail base, are thrilled by the flurry of newcomers.
"We've been very fortunate with this economy, because the news everywhere is grim," said Jennifer Bell, manager of Salem Main Streets, which works with downtown businesses.