By Kevin Leonard
6:45 AM EST, November 14, 2013
Laurel Shopping Center was a pioneer in local retail, and the men behind its development were visionaries who turned a then-radical idea into a successful enterprise that helped change the face of retail in the Baltimore/Washington area.
Brothers Melvin and Wolford Berman, and Arthur Robinson started their development company, Berman Enterprises, after Melvin Berman and Robinson had successful careers as dairy businessmen. There were few local shopping centers in the 1950s, and Laurel Shopping Center pre-dated almost all the others between Washington and Baltimore, including Wheaton Plaza and Prince George's Plaza.
Melvin Berman's son, Dennis Berman, who runs the company with his cousin, Gary Berman, shared some insight in a recent interview on how Berman Enterprises built and managed Laurel Shopping Center, which opened 57 years ago.
Berman recalled how his father and uncle would bring potential store owners to the site and explain their vision while gazing at empty fields. At that time, Laurel's retail was solely centered on Main Street.
They were obviously persuasive, as retail chains such as Giant Food, Woolworth's, Kresge's, White Coffee Pot, Singer Sewing Machines and People's Drug signed on. According to Berman, it was the only shopping center in the country with both a Woolworth's and a Kresge's (the company that eventually became Kmart). Initially, "neither wanted to come," said Berman, but the Berman brothers somehow convinced them.
To fill the other storefronts, the partners had firm ideas: mixing local businesses with larger retail chains.
"They were ahead of their time," said Berman. "They were out beating the bushes" for local mom-and-pop store owners, he said, filling the shopping center with Sherry's Jewelers, Mel-Ron Fabrics, Shirley's, Bart's Barber Shop, Liquor Fair, Stewart's Men's Shop, Lilli's Children's Shop and others. Two stores owned locally went on to become chains after their success at Laurel: Hi-Gear and Frank's Hardware.
With Gov. Theodore McKeldin cutting the ceremonial ribbon, the Laurel Shopping Center opened for business Nov. 14, 1956, with 30 stores in the original L-shaped center and parking for 5,000 cars. Construction of the center costs $2 million. The north side of the center was an open lot with only a Sinclair gas station on Route 1. Giant Food was the largest store and Fanny Farmer was the smallest.
Different kind of landlord
Living in Scaggsville gave the partners a front row seat to Laurel's boom in the 1950s. Convinced that Laurel offered the perfect location to take advantage of this, the partners found the site they wanted for a shopping center, which included the grounds of the old Laurel Sanitarium.
The proposal Berman Enterprises used to raise capital for the project described the sources of Laurel's booming population of shoppers, some of which were brand new: the Beltsville Research Center, the city of Greenbelt, Fort Meade, NSA, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and, of course, the "excellent road network" between Washington and Baltimore. According to the proposal, all of these areas suffered from "limited shopping facilities" and Laurel "has for many years been a small town and suddenly finds itself in the throes of a booming metropolitan area. Naturally, the antiquated shopping facilities of Laurel have been totally inadequate for the population which now exists in this area and as a result most of the shopping has gone to Washington or Baltimore."
They encountered a problem with their proposed location for the shopping center because houses were under construction in the new Fairlawn neighborhood, and four unsold houses had already been completed on the property they wanted for the shopping center. As part of the deal, the partners bought the land for the shopping center, including the four houses. Two of the houses were demolished, one was lifted onto a special truck and moved to their property on Leishear Road, and the fourth remained right where it was built.
The fourth house happened to be located in the middle of the shopping center so it was customized and became the State Bank of Laurel (later the Equitable Trust Bank and currently Bank of America). The chimney for the fireplace is visible in old photos of the bank building.
There were no job titles or descriptions for the Berman brothers and Robinson; whatever needed doing was done by them all. The only other employee for years was Vince Leahy, who was a lawyer for the Hecht Co. but came to work for Berman Enterprises as their legal counsel.
They would walk through the center daily and stop to chat with all the tenants. Berman remembered that his father and uncle frequently advised their tenants on business matters, an unusual tenant/landlord relationship. A family atmosphere pervaded the center.
This environment was fondly recalled by Frances Fliss, whose family owned the Mel-Ron Fabrics store, in a recent interview. She remembered the warm feelings the tenants had for the partners, as well as the friendships that flourished between the store owners.
"Every morning after opening, many of the owners would leave the shops to their employees and meet at White Coffee Pot," Fliss said. "The Bermans were there often."
The partners hosted the tenants and their families every year at a pool party. Fliss recalled that store employees would dress up at Halloween to give out candy, and that the tenants were also enthusiastic participants in the many promotions staged by the center, especially "Old Fashioned Days."
Their success did not go unnoticed. In the book "Prince George's County: A Pictorial History," author Alan Virta describes how Melvin Berman joined the board of directors of the Rouse Co. and was instrumental in the planning and purchase of land that would become Columbia.
Success brought expansion to the center. In 1964, the Hecht Co. opened in a new, unattached building on the north corner. This was followed by a substantial expansion in 1966, known as Section 2, in which a new "L" shaped configuration of storefronts connected the Hecht Co. with the original shopping center at the corner where Albee Shoes stood. The center was now a gigantic "U" shaped shopping center that included Marianne, Webster Men's Wear, Suburban Music, Thom McAnn, Hot Shoppes and the Laurel Cinema.
Dennis Berman said that sometime in the late 1960s, his father read a newspaper announcement that Montgomery Ward would be opening in the Laurel Shopping Center. This was news to him, as no one from Montgomery Ward ever talked to Berman Enterprises.
Melvin Berman called them and suggested they should have a lease in hand before making such announcements. They quickly agreed to a deal, which led to Montgomery Ward locating in another unattached building on Cherry Lane.
They built it that far from the existing center because it was in their contract from the beginning that their store would be connected to the open center with an enclosed mall. It just didn't happen until 1979.
The open area next to Montgomery Ward saw a few local enterprises come and go over the years, including a miniature golf course and a go-kart track.
There were other piecemeal expansions over the next 20 years, most notably Georgetown Alley in 1971. The News Leader called Georgetown Alley "Laurel's Swing to Youth" since it catered to young shoppers with boutiques.
The biggest expansion came in 1979 with the opening of the enclosed Laurel Mall, connecting the open center to Montgomery Ward, increasing the number of stores to more than 225 and the entire complex to more than a million square feet.
Berman Enterprises sold their remaining interests in the Laurel Shopping Center when the brothers retired. Robinson, who was a pilot, died in a plane crash at Friendship Airport in 1965. Wolford Berman died in 1992, Melvin Berman died in 1996.
The multigenerational company is now populated by sons and grandsons of the Berman brothers, eight in all. The company has had a sizable presence in Laurel, developing the Phair Office Park from the former O.W. Phair Elementary School, converting the former Laurel Junior High into an office building, and constructing the old Arbitron Building (now the Laurel College Center). They also developed Montpelier Plaza Shopping Center, Oxford Green apartments, Safeway/Dart Drug shopping center, Steward Towers and Steward Manor apartments, Bedford homes and Montpelier Hills.
Laurel Shopping Center played a role in two historical events. On May 15, 1972, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, on a presidential campaign tour, was shot by Arthur Bremer. Wallace had spoken from a stage next to Equitable Trust Bank and had waded into the crowd to shake hands when Bremer shot him. Frances Fliss said she was working in Mel-Ron Fabrics when a reporter rushed in and asked to use her phone to call in the story.
Months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, government investigation revealed that Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers that had spent time in Laurel, sent a wire transfer of $5,000 to another hijacker from the Giant Food in the Laurel Shopping Center.
Part 2 of this series, looking at the wacky, wild and imaginative promotions staged by the Laurel Shopping Center during the Berman years, will appear in the Nov. 21 Laurel Leader. Contact Kevin Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-776-9260.