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Revisiting the heyday of department stores and five-and-dimes

A bell pealed and commerce began at each of downtown Baltimore's four major department stores.

A bell pealed at 9:30 a.m. six days a week in downtown Baltimore's four major department stores. A clerk drew back a restraining cord and the early-bird customers, waiting just inside the door, bolted for sales counters, elevators, escalators on their day's buying routines.

That didn't mean that intrepid shoppers had just arrived at the downtown crossroads of Howard and Lexington streets. Many had breakfasted earlier, perhaps at the nearby Read's, Baltimore's most recognizable drugstore chain, which also had a soda fountain-luncheonette. Coffee, scrambled eggs, scrapple and toast? No problem, and you could also pick up a bottle of aspirin and a paperback mystery.

Baltimore's four big department stores — Hutzler's, Hochschild Kohn, Hecht's and Stewart's — all faced downtown's Howard Street and exuded a concentrated economic energy. Three of the four had side entrances on Lexington Street, another bustling thoroughfare lined with small shops. Lexington also connected to Charles Street and its stretch of boutiques, jewelers and linen shops that flourished in the shadow of O'Neill & Co., a Victorian-era carriage-trade establishment that closed in 1954.

Suburban shoppers pulled into parking slots in Towson, Belvedere, Eastpoint, Reisterstown Road, Security Square, Golden Ring, Edmondson Village, Mondawmin, Westview, Columbia and Harundale, which were anchored by branches of the flagship downtown retailers. The suburban stores offered more casual shopping without the dress code that seemed to apply to the venerable downtown retailers. Attire for downtown shopping varied; hats and ties played a role.

"At Stewart's, we found there was also a large suburban market," said Donald Alexander, a Dickeyville resident and former department store buyer. "When we opened the York Road location in the Drumcastle shopping center on York Road, it equaled in its first year the sales revenues of the downtown store. It was phenomenally successful. We enlarged that store three times."

The old Hess shoe chain had one up on its competitors. Hess, a popular, locally owned business, offered children's hair cuts at an on-site barbershop. At its Belvedere Avenue location, children also had the use of an indoor sliding board. Live monkeys in glass cases at the store's entry windows drew knots of onlookers all day long. At Edmondson Village Center, the monkeys in the shop's exterior window nibbled their carrots into the evening, providing another show to those exiting the adjoining movie theater.

Some Baltimore shoppers still recall the animated Christmas window displays, the laughing Santas and the miniature elves run by hidden motors hammering at work benches. Hutzler's had a pair of fake reindeer, called Tinsel and Bow, rigged with microphones. Some young visitors were caught off guard when the reindeer spoke.

Downtown shoppers, who rode buses and streetcars, carried shopping bags, sold for a nickel and printed with the merchant's name.

There was walk-to shopping as well. The neighborhood hubs of Highlandtown, Pennsylvania Avenue, Goans, South Broadway, Monument Street, Waverly and South Baltimore-Federal Hill developed strong customer loyalties.

The large downtown stores only began accepting African-American customers in the spring of 1960. Before that, a myriad of rules held back black shoppers along the city's main retail street. James Crockett, a black businessman and former president of the Board of Fire Commissioners, addressed this history: "The closer the [African-American] women got to Howard Street, that's where the prohibitions began," he recalled.

Two department stores — Gutman's and Brager's — both a block off Howard, welcomed black customers, he said. Gutman's also recruited students from Frederick Douglass High School to work at its Lexington Street store.

"Gutman's was known to have the best millinery department in the state," he said.

Black men, he said, could buy their suits at downtown haberdashers — the old Hamburger's, Warner's, Eddie Jacobs or the Canterbury Shop — in the days when black women were forbidden to try on apparel at the Howard Street stores.

Alice J. Skelton recalled what it was like for a young black woman to shop at Hochschild's. "In my college years, I had worked a couple of summers at Martha's Vineyard and wanted to get some school clothes for college after I returned to Baltimore," she recalled. "I shopped throughout the store and had bought quite a bit. Then I got to the hat department and wanted a white felt hat.

"I was told, 'You couldn't sit down.' They don't serve us in hats. I said, if I couldn't sit down, I wanted my money back of everything else I'd bought. ... All these years later, I recall the feeling of being rejected," she said.

There were economic circles within the shopping aisles. Shocked at the price of a garment in a traditional department store? Try its budget basement. Budget shoppers also had sought Lexington Street, with its Julius Gutman Co., which merged with another low-price house, Brager's. The prices were lower at Gutman's, but the buying experience carried the impressions of a big store — the chiming call bells, elevator doors opening, whishing pneumatic tubes and the mechanical rattle of a cash register drawer closing.

Budget retail was not limited to the old city stores. National chains such as Two Guys, E.J. Korvette, GEM and Topp's built stores in the shopping plazas that sprouted around the Beltway as it was completed in the 1960s. Some chain sellers, such as Caldor and Value City, occupied former department store buildings. The budget chains and the traditional full-service stores battled for customers. There were few survivors but many memories.

And what better place to meet up with friends for a lunchtime chat than a department store tearoom?

These restaurants upheld the standards of middle-class etiquette. Finger bowls endured into the 1950s. The downtown Hutzler's offered soups and sandwiches at four restaurants: the Colonial Tea Room (with cranberry glass table lamps), a modernistic Quixie, a basement luncheonette and a fountain shop. Aficionados claimed the food tasted slightly different at each venue. The suburban branches had variants — Westview had the Maryland Gardens and Towson the Valley View Room. Models strolled the aisles to promote fashion offerings.

The downtown basement luncheonette was renowned for chicken chow mein or a homemade vegetable soup redolent of cabbage and tomatoes. The Colonial offered wintertime terrapin stew. Sandwiches were always accompanied by "Saratoga" chips, never ordinary potato chips. The set-price Quixie offered tiffins of soup, casseroles and a rolling dessert cart laden with Lady Baltimore and Wellesley fudge cakes, coffee chiffon pie and an apple brown Betty. Its competitor, Hochschild's, had a seven-layer chocolate cake.

"After shopping, my sister and I often went to the Virginia Dare on Howard Street," said Carolyn Dunne, who grew up in Northeast Baltimore. "We would see the Sun columnist, Eleanor Arnett Nash, at her regular table. She was the only woman I ever saw who ate her lunch with her white gloves on."

Not ready for formal dining? The variety stores, the five-and dimes, had their breezy lunch counters. There were grilled hot dogs at Kresge's. Woolworth's promoted its banana splits.

After the Christmas decorations were taken down and the daylight grew longer in the early spring, the dime-store merchants brought out the Easter lilies, Mother's Day corsages and market packs of annuals on the sidewalk.

Lexington Street once had as many as eight competing dime stores. A City Directory lists H.L. Green, S.S. Kresge, Schulte United, W.T. Grant, F.W. Woolworth, J.G. McCrory, Silver's and G.C. Murphy.

If the department stores had silk-lined showcases and pricey perfumes, the dime stores had dark reddish wood counters with glass partitions for hairpins and barrettes. The basement-level shoe repair operations (thrifty Baltimore shoppers had their shoes resoled) gave off the scent of leather polish. The scents of inexpensive chocolate candy, popcorn oil and birdseed escaped no customer.

These places outfitted the home. Customers had sheets of kitchen linoleum custom-cut and would carry the long rolls out the front door to a bus where the rule was, if it fit, you could tote it home.

Shopping could become theatrical. During displays of Italian-theme merchandise, Hutzler's provided a Venetian glass blower. The dime store had a pitchman extolling miracle rug shampoos and vegetable dicers. Both drew an audience. And the customers returned week after week, some to buy what they really needed, others for the entertainment offered during a trip to the big store.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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