Longtime Hampden resident Jack Barr, a colorful "town crier" who trolled The Avenue for business news, often wearing caps or crowns with an assortment of handcrafted noses on them, died of heart disease and a colon infection on Sunday, Sept. 29 at the Manor Care nursing home in Towson. He was 79.
"He cared about everybody and he looked out for everybody," said Leslie Stevenson, owner of the store, In Watermelon Sugar, who was Mr. Barr's friend and caretaker and had power of attorney for his legal affairs because he had no known family.
"Before the Internet, he was how information got around," said Jacq Jones, owner of Sugar the Shop, a sex toy shop on The Avenue, who serenaded him at a party for Barr at Cafe Hon on his 74th birthday in 2008.
Even in in the digital age, Mr. Barr, who referred to himself proudly as "the nosiest man in Hampden" and was known as Nosy Jack or Jack the Nose, made himself useful handing out brochures for the Hampden Village Merchants Association and getting the scoop on new businesses. He often jotted down information in a spiral notebook that he carried.
"It's a heartbreaking loss for the neighborhood," said Benn Ray, president of the association. "He was everybody's grandfather — well, maybe not everybody had a grandfather like that. He was a fantastic spokesperson and messenger for the neighborhood."
Mr. Barr also came to symbolize Hampden, a neighborhood cherished for its eccentricites, pride and sense of possibilities at a time when it was gentrifying.
"He was part of that magic that brought change and renewed vibrance to the neighborhood," emailed Jay Caragay, owner of the coffee cafe Spro, where Mr. Barr often stopped in to drink iced tea with lots of sugar. "When people talk about how charming or how cool or hip that Hampden is today, I always think of Jack the Nose because he was one of those people that truly made Hampden into the neighborhood that people admire today."
"You couldn't have a place on The Avenue without knowing Jack," said Alta Reynolds, former co-owner of the old Honey Bea Haven store, where Mr. Barr worked part-time.
"He made it his business to meet and greet everyone," she said. "He would scope you out and do his rounds and everybody would have a heads up on what was going on."
"We were on his rounds," said Lisa Ghinger, executive director of the Hampden Family Center, who remembers Mr. Barr as "a staple in the community."
Mr. Barr often came in to chat with Pam Viel, the family center's administrative and financial development assistant.
"He would always come in and find out if there was any news. He loved passing on the news," she said. "He would get me business cards."
"Even before (Sugar the Shop) opened, he came by and asked what the store was," said Ms. Jones. "That's what he was, a modern-day town crier. But he wasn't a gossiper."
When she explained to him that Sugar was a sex toy shop with an educational focus, "he was totally fine. He said, 'OK, great.'"
Mrs. Stevenson said that Mr. Barr, a Korean War veteran originally from Lancaster, Pa., lived on Social Security and a small pension from his years working for a tablecloth factory in Hampden and resided in the area for some 40 years and liked to frequent its bars. As he grew older, he gave up the nightlife but missed the camaraderie. With no family of his own, he befriended merchants, who became like a family to him, she said.
She first met him when he came in to the old S'getti Gourmet, the predecessor of In Watermelon Sugar, to buy Italian cold cuts.
"He was curious," Mrs. Stevenson said. "It was his neighborhood and he wanted to engage."
As age slowed him down, Mr. Barr walked The Avenue with a cane, often stopping into Cafe Hon or Spro.
"While we were building Spro in the summer of 2009, Jack would be lurking about, trying to glean information on the new coffee shop being built on his watch," Mr. Caragay said in his email. "When the doors finally opened in March 2010, Jack was there poking around suspiciously, trying to figure out if we were charlatans or people truly interested in being a part of the neighborhood that he loved so much. Over time, Jack went from being someone suspicious of our intentions to one of our beloved regulars."