As sales dip, Towson electronics store pulls the plug

Towson Times
Competition from big box stores, internet sales force Towson electronics store to announce closing

Paul Smith started to notice lagging sales in 2008 at Baynesville Electronics, the store his grandparents first opened in their Joppa Road home, near the intersection with Loch Raven Boulevard, in 1955.

Hoping that this was an anomaly rather than a trend, he hoped that the business, which eventually expanded to 6,600 square feet, in a new building at the same site, would right itself.

However, on Oct. 3, Smith, the president of the corporation that owns the store and the 1-acre lot on which it stands, and his fellow owners, announced that the store is closing for good.

While there is no official closing date, the once-popular purveyor of electronic components and gadgets will lock its doors for the final time after its inventory is sold, probably sometime in November, Smith said.

"The industry has been struggling for years," he said of the third-generation family-owned business. "We had built up quite a loyal following, but people's buying habits have changed a lot over the years. We sell mainly component parts [used to repair computers and other electronic devices], but people don't fix things anymore. We've become a disposable society."

Inroads made by competitors on the Internet have taken huge chunks of Smith's brick-and-mortar business as well, he said.

"We made a conscience decision not to sell [products] online," Smith said. "Our business is based on personal customer service. We sell people actually what they are looking for. But we just haven't had enough sales to pay for our inventory. Plus, there are taxes and other rising costs to pay."

Although many longtime customers were shaken by news of the closing, at least one, who mostly had stopped coming to the store in recent years, unwittingly described the soon-to-be shuttered store's plight when he learned of it.

"One customer who I haven't seen in five or 10 years asked me why we were closing," Smith said with a sad shake of his head.

Even so, the bad news hit one Baynesville Electronics loyalist particularly hard, Smith noted.

"We had a grown man cry right here in front of me at the store," he said. "He said he couldn't believe that we're closing. I had no idea that we had that kind of impact on so many people. I heard that it was announced by the local police at one of their briefings. We've had hundreds of people calling to ask if it's true. To them, it's almost like a death in the family."

Victor Ramage, 55, didn't take his feelings that far, but he said he was unhappy to be shopping at the store for what might be the final time last weekend.

"From day one, after I moved here from Chicago [in 1993] I was told that this is the place to go," the audio engineer from Timonium said. "It's the only place to get some of this stuff, like grill speaker cloth from the 60s. And some of the stuff I've gotten here, I know it's more expensive than getting it on the Internet. But these guys talk to you, give you tips, kind of like a local hardware store. Some of the things I could get from the big-box stores, but I like the customer service here. It's a lost art."

Rare are the times that customer Fred Gelhaus, 86, has gone to the store and been unable to find what he wanted, he said — until his most recent visit on Oct. 8.

"I've been coming here since it opened," he added.

The retired bricklayer from Upper Northwood, in Baltimore City, hoped to buy a case for his old-school flip-phone. But there was no such item for Gelhaus to purchase.

Fred Gelhaus Jr., who was accompanying his father to the store that day, had high praise for Baynesville Electronics.

"They have service you can't beat," he said. "They are helpful, knowledgeable and courteous. We'll miss them."

Cub Hill resident Bob Ernst, 74, a longtime buyer for Baynesville Electronics, said that the Smith family always treated their employees well.

"They treated me like one of their own," he said. "I never missed a paycheck in 52 years."

Like workers in other businesses, however, employee health benefits were taken away five years ago and no raises were given for even longer than that, Ernst said.

Paul Smith's uncle, Richard Smith, 64, said that changes in the industry began pecking away at profits in an incremental fashion.

"We went from tubes to transistors to integrated circuits to circuit boards," he said, describing long lines of customers who would line up inside the store to test radio and television tubes back in the store's earlier days.

Oddly enough, when local Radio Shack outlets closed, it also hurt Baynesville's business, Ernst said.

"People thought that Radio Shack's closing was going to be good for us," he said. "And it was for a short time, but we lost a lot of business referrals when they left."

Richard Smith said that the company's gross sales peaked at $1.7 million in the late 1980s or early 1990s before falling to $800,000 last year.

"I used to ride my bike up here as a kid to get batteries," said Tom Lortz, 61, who grew up in Loch Raven Village and now lives in Havre de Grace, after purchasing headphone extension cables at the store on Tuesday. "It's sad and depressing. Now I don't know where else to go to get some of the things I'd get here. I feel bad for the employees, too. I know most of them have been here a very long time."

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