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.
While new shops are coming, there are also stores leaving or going out of business.
The most notable may be Chulamama, a maternity and baby shop in Derby Lofts (the old Salem Laundry building) that did so well here that it opened a second store on Route 114 in Danvers. Ironically, the new store has done so well in Danvers that Chulamama has decided to close its doors in Salem.
The Edgewater Cafe, one of the restaurant pioneers in Salem, called it quits after Halloween. However, a new venture, Adriatic Restaurant and Bar, will replace it on the corner of Front and Washington streets.
The influx of new life is certainly being cheered by current businesses.
"I'm really excited about Hip Baby Gear opening across the street," said Jenny Cudmore, who opened Crunchy Granola Baby, an organic and natural baby store, more than three years ago. "We've already collaborated on a couple of events coming up in the future. .... It's going to be great. I think they should move the crosswalk up between our two stores."
Several of the new stores seem targeted at similar customers. They use words like "homemade," "natural" and "local" to describe their products.
Coven plans to offer sandwiches with fresh roasted chicken, lobster macaroni and local cheeses, and even "grab-and-go" prepared food that is made from scratch.
"We're really trying to use as many local and farm-fresh ingredients as possible," co-owner Jennifer Voulos said.
At least one of the new stores was recruited to Salem.
"The last couple of years we've had a couple of landlords call us and ask if we would open in Salem," said Kristen Pollard, who owns Mud Puddle Toys with her husband, Sam.
Those calls were made because of a city-commissioned consultant's report a few years ago that concluded that downtown Salem needed, among other things, a toy store.
Pollard said she also has been impressed by the city's planning office, which has met with them to discuss low-interest loans.
The new stores aren't arriving in a vacuum. They know about the recent restaurant boom and about developments in the pipeline.
Hip Baby Gear co-owner Rick Winter mentioned the parking garage the MBTA plans to build at the commuter rail station. More parking and more commuters can only help, he said. And Washington Street, he knows, feeds into both Route 114 and the new bypass road to Beverly.
"I've lived (in Salem) for eight years," Winter said, "and I've seen a lot of changes going on here."
Now, Hip Baby Gear and Two Girls Shop is part of that change.