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BSO oboist Michael Lisicky's books recall department stores of the past

You might think of Michael Lisicky's obsession with department stores as an orchestral tone poem for a single oboe: at turns plaintive and raucous, eloquent and funny, with unpredictable little swerves.

Lisicky is second oboist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and also plays the English horn. Two of his main obsessions — and he has many — are music and his dedication to tracing the history of the elegant emporiums of the past. His love for these grand old stores has become a kind of shorthand for his love of his fun and gregarious late mother, Anne.

The 49-year-old Lisicky even has a tattoo on his left calf of the Strawbridge & Clothier seal of confidence. In the 1940s, Anne Lisicky worked in the Philadelphia branch of Strawbridge's, where she sold candy and gift wrap and sang in the store choir.

Not only that, but Michael Lisicky also named Anne's 14-year-old granddaughter Jordan, after Boston's Jordan Marsh chain.

Each day Lisicky sits down to work on another department store history (he recently released his sixth book), each time he delivers a lecture in a library, it brings him momentarily back in touch with his mother. When Anne Lisicky died in 2009, she was suffering from dementia.

"I blame the whole department store thing on her," Lisicky says, "and my father was an enabler.

"My mother passed away two weeks before my first book came out. I showed her the tattoo, though by that time she had no idea who I was. But she knew about the passion."

Lisicky's newest tome is called "Woodward & Lothrop: A Store Worthy of the Nation's Capital," and traces the history of the venerable chain that operated in the District of Columbia between 1887 and 1995.

The book's foreword was written by former D.C. native and style icon Tim Gunn. Lisicky had never met Gunn when he sent him his request — a gesture typical of the oboist's larger-than-life personality.

"Woodward & Lothrop was my closet," writes Gunn, who mentors aspiring fashion designers on the reality show "Project Runway."

"I had nice clothes as a kid and as a teen because Woodies' merchandise was relevant and affordable. Woodies was the barometric gauge of how people in Washington wanted to dress."

Lisicky's books are permeated by a sense of loss because the era of the great department stores had ended by the mid-1980s. As Gunn writes, "I never dreamed that these stores would go away."

That nostalgia seems to be percolating into the larger culture. How else to explain why PBS' "Masterpiece Classic" has not one, but two multipart series recently that are set in Victorian-era department stores?

The first season of "The Paradise," which is loosely based on a novel by Emile Zola, ends Sundayafter seven episodes. The second season of "Mr. Selfridge," which stars Jeremy Piven as the real-life magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, will air in 2014.

Social historian Jan Whitaker, who founded the website, thinks this wistful backward look arises from the decline of the American middle class. In the stores' heyday from the 1950s to 1980s, retail centers reflected the characteristic quirks of the metropolises in which they were located.

"The department stores were unique to their cities," Whitaker says, "and they were a source of pride for that city."

Among other things, department stores provided a kind of road map by which shoppers could plan their lives.

"I've looked at some diaries from that time," Whitaker says. "Women would go to department stores multiple times a week. There were fashion shows and art exhibits and nice restaurants. There were playrooms where you could leave your kids for a couple of hours while you attended lectures on how to apply cosmetics or raise children. There were these lounges associated with restrooms where you could sit on upholstered furniture and write letters. You could spend a good part of the day there."

Lisicky, who was born in 1964, was just a boy when he began accompanying his mother to the department stores anchoring the towns and cities around Camden, N.J., where he grew up.

"I have a scar on my forehead because one day, my mother told me we were going to the Cherry Hill Mall," he says. "I was so excited, I ran into a door."

It became a ritual that Anne Lisicky enjoyed sharing with her youngest son. At least a few afternoons each month, the pair would climb into the family station wagon and head out of Camden.

"Each store's logo was different, and each town's food was different," he says. "Allentown [Pennsylvania] had Hess's. It was this utopian little city that always seemed to be 10 years behind the times. Baltimore meant Hutzler's, and Lancaster [Pennsylvania] was Watt & Shand."

Those expeditions didn't always end with a purchase.

"This was never about shopping for me," he says. "It's about family and history. It's about something that I naively thought would never go away."

At around the same time he began exploring department stores, the young Michael picked up his first oboe and began exploring breath control and fingering techniques.

As soon as the boy started playing in the fifth grade, it became apparent that he had an affinity for the notoriously finicky instrument.

"The most obvious thing about Michael is that he's a natural," says Katherine Needleman, the symphony's first oboe and a close friend of Lisicky's. "He has a great ear and he's very good at sight-reading. He can attain a very high standard without a lot of effort."

(Lisicky also is expert, Needleman says, at misbehaving during concerts without getting caught. He's infamous for surreptitiously flicking water at nearby players during the musical rests, all the while maintaining an expression of angelic innocence. "We have a good time," Needleman says, "and try not to get fired.")

After graduating from Boston's New England Conservatory in 1982 with a bachelor's degree in oboe performance, Lisicky joined first the Savannah, Ga., and then the Richmond, Va., orchestras. He began making guest appearances with the Baltimore symphony in 2003 and got the job full time in 2005.

Lisicky has the right personality for the oboe, according to Needleman, which is as important a barometer of success as technical facility.

"The machine is a musical disaster," Needleman says. "It's a mercurial instrument, an acoustical nightmare. Reeds last only a few days and change with the barometric pressure. You have to be obsessive-compulsive to play an oboe."

Obsessive-compulsive? Lisicky?

Just because he's written six department store histories in four years, after amassing an archive of 5,000 newspaper articles?

Just because, in addition to his regular symphony gig, Lisicky also spent several years heading the Players' Committee? Because he recently released his first CD, "Turbine," which he recorded with BSO members Philip Munds on horn and Mary Woehr on piano?

Can he be considered compulsive just because he runs between seven and nine miles a day, and hasn't missed a jog since 2010? (He shed 90 pounds in 10 months.)

Or was the tipping point when he began studying for his master's degree in museum studies from the Johns Hopkins University? Or when he became one of Fells Point's two official Towne Criers, a position he's held since 2007?


What makes Lisicky a fanatic is the lengths to which he will go to acquire personal care products, Needleman says.

"Michael is completely obsessed with pink toilet paper," she says.

"He grew up with his mother having pink toilet paper in the house. Now you cannot buy it anywhere in the country, so Michael imports it from England at exorbitant expense.

"Any time I'm traveling out of the country, I will pick up 12 rolls for him and pack it in my carry-on luggage. Imagine coming through customs and declaring pink toilet paper. Michael has this habit of making me look completely insane."

We all have different ways of immortalizing the people we love. Day after day, in ways ranging from the scholarly to the irreverent, Michael Lisicky honors his mother.

About the book

"Woodward & Lothrop: A Store Worthy of the Nation's Capital" was released in September by The History Press. $19.99, 160 pages.

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