Fells Point tackle shop survives the big-box stores

For 96 years, one thing has remained constant at T.G. Tochterman & Sons, Baltimore's oldest bait and tackle shop: There's always a Tochterman behind the counter.

It started with Thomas in 1916, who handed the keys over to his son, Thomas Jr., in 1936, who handed them to his son, Tony, in 1981.

Tony runs the store with his wife, Dee. But Tony's dad is still on the premises, his ashes in a fishing rod case behind the counter, surrounded by a collection of old reels and vintage photos.

The 62-year-old proprietor doesn't have a successor and hasn't decided what will happen when he retires.

Only 30 percent of U.S. family-owned businesses survive to the second generation, and about 12 percent make it to the third generation, according to the Family Business Institute.

The Eastern Avenue landmark began as a confectionery store that sold fishhooks and bait on the side. Gradually, tackle pushed out candy and cigarettes until, on Feb. 8, 1916, the Tochterman family cast its future with the fish. The eye-catching neon sign of a bass jumping out of the water was added to the facade in the 1930s to lure the anglers.

Baseball legend Ted Williams was a customer. Members of the Saudi royal family have cruised the aisles. Five generations of one family stopped by on the way home from a nearby hospital so that a newborn's first shopping experience would be at Tochterman.

Striped-bass trophy season begins on April 21, and the Tochtermans are laying in fishing supplies. Tony recently took a break from stocking shelves and talking to suppliers to share some fish stories.

How has your customer base changed over the years?

They've become more professional, more family-centric. More wives are going out with their husbands, kids are going with their parents, and fishing has become a family event. We get a lot of businessmen at lunchtime or right after work who are getting away from the rat race of downtown. Surgeons from Hopkins stop. When they walk in the door, the ties get loosened. They'll be fishing from their boats in the Chesapeake Bay during striper season or getting ready to go shad fishing in spring or are thinking about taking a few hours off to go out to a stream and fish for trout. We talk tackle and who caught what.

What's the burnout rate for tackle shop CEOs?

It's just like the Ravens say: When you're winning, it's not work. Well, when you're here, it's not work because the customers make it a lot of fun.

Everyone says we're over the recession. How's business been?

The tackle business for everybody, whether you're a manufacturer or a distributor or an independent, has been very, very difficult. But what's happened is the economic downturn has made the small-business people better business people. They're not being as foolish spending money on things they shouldn't. They're making smarter buying decisions, not getting sucked in by fads, and listening to their customers. And on the other side of the coin, most of the companies are cutting down on the amount of inventory they're sending to the smaller stores.

It's getting better. We're seeing 25 new customers a week — people are recommending us to their neighbors and co-workers. Our business this year is up 11 percent over the same time last year. What we saw during the worst of it was people worried about paying their mortgage and setting aside money for their kids' education and paying down credit card debt. Now we're seeing people — men mostly — saying, "You know what? The job is fine. The house is fine. The wife and kids are fine. I'm going to spend some money on Dad."

How did you survive the proliferation of big-box stores when other independent tackle stops went under?

Because we've been here for 96 years, we have found that the most important part of our company is offering the specialty items that other stores don't carry. The big-box stores have to carry the most popular items. Our job is to have those items, but also to stock niche items, fishing gear we know works in specific spots but also the stuff for anglers who travel the world. Competitive pricing is important, along with a staff that fishes and can offer good advice. Don't sell customers things they don't need, but sell them the highest quality that they can afford. And then it's customer service, customer service, customer service. It sure as hell isn't location, location, location.

The longest-lasting tackle shop in Maryland is smack in the middle of a city of 620,000 people, not next to a pristine stream or picturesque lake. How does that work?

A supplier told us last week that we're the oldest family-run fishing shop in the whole United States. That means a lot to us. We have a very loyal clientele, where you have grandfathers bring in their sons, who in turn bring in their sons. Just one generation after another. They want to go where grandpa bought his first fishing rod. You can't buy that kind of advertising.

Did you ever think about moving closer to the water?

No, not really. By being in a location where everything is paid for, we can keep our costs down and our overhead low. That's how we can offer competitive prices.

The number of fishing licenses being sold in Maryland has leveled off. What's needed to prime the pump and get more anglers on the water?

The one thing the state could do is offer some more free fishing weekends instead of just three free days for the whole summer. A father today, if he can have some free weekends, chances are he's going to get a license so he can take his kids out for more fishing. Right now, if a father wants to take his 16-year-old son out, he's going to spend $50 just for licenses.

You're pretty picky about your staff, aren't you?

People have to be able to go in the shop, tell the salesman what they're going to be fishing for and what their budget is, and have that salesman be able to come up with the right thing. If you get a great deal on a fishing outfit but it's not the outfit you should have for what you're doing, it's a waste of money at any price.

The Tochterman centennial is just four years off. Did you ever think 100 years was within reach?

I was sure the company would make it, but I wasn't sure about me [laughing]. No, there was never a doubt in my mind. We're proud of what we've accomplished. We were proud of what our parents did before us and their parents did before them. It was just a natural progression — what do you want to do with your lives? We knew what we wanted to do with ours.

Do you get fishing much?

Not as much as I'd like. I've fished all over the world, and Dee and I will be able to spend more time on the water now because we've got a great staff. But it's like parents who take their kids fishing:They'd rather see the kids catch one fish than to catch 100 themselves. Well, I have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of customers, and it's more important to me that they catch fish than how much time I spend on the water.

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