When it came time to buy a dress for the 50th reunion of Frederick Douglass High School's Class of 1963, Alicia Bynum knew just where to go.
At 69, she'd been shopping at Lexington Lady for nearly half her life, following the store from one location to another, from the city to the suburbs. It was always the place to find the right thing for a special occasion, something you would not find in any other store, like the navy blue dress with a blue print jacket that showed so nicely at the reunion at Martin's West last fall.
Last week, she joined a throng of loyal customers seeking big discounts at the Pikesville store on Reisterstown Road, as the family clothing business established in Baltimore 81 years ago hung out the "Going Out of Business" signs.
"We're going to miss it," said Bynum, browsing through a rack of blouses in a store packed with steady customers who had received invitations for the sale's first day on Tuesday. "It's always been one where you can get one-of-a-kind items. The clothes were perfect."
Customers were lined up 15 deep at the register, where Rich and Bernie Krieger, whose grandparents started their first clothing business in Virginia in 1923, were ringing up sales and bagging merchandise. They were working full speed alongside manager Debbie Schwartz, whose mother had worked for decades for their parents, Alexander and Rose Krieger. Rose's parents, Ben and Nettie, moved from Virginia and established Herman's clothing store on North Eutaw Street in Baltimore in 1933.
The store in the Festival at Woodholme shopping center was packed with customers who had been regulars, some of whom had come years before with their mothers or their grandmothers. Customers of the family business became like family themselves, passing on the tradition.
"What I personally will miss most about the business is the customers and the relationships with the customers," said Rich Krieger, who's 76 and has been working in the family business steadily since the mid-1960s, shortly after he finished a degree at the University of Maryland School of Law.
"This type of business, where you relate to the customer on a personal level is a dying breed," he said.
As the brothers divided the labor, Rich handled most of the buying and customer service, while Bernie, 70, worked the business side and the store displays.
"I think it was time to enjoy the rest of my life with the time that's left," said Bernie, who has also worked in the business full time since the mid-1960s. "You start thinking that way."
The first of the family businesses to close was the first to open in Baltimore, Herman's, which sold women's and children's clothing. By 1960, according to a Baltimore Sun account, its 27-year run was over. Business was just not as good as it had been, Bernie said. "It had its time."
But the family by then had started a new venture downtown, an entry into the relatively new discount clothing business called the Three & Five Shop, selling women's hats for $3, dresses for $5, with a section for large women's sizes that would become the specialty for Lexington Lady.
The Three & Five lasted until the mid-1980s, when the business lost its lease, Bernie said, and many stores were leaving downtown for the suburbs and the Inner Harbor. The brothers did not see downtown as a good place to do business.
They kept Lexington Lady, though, established on West Lexington Street in 1977. That business thrived, growing into the suburbs, with stores in Mondawmin Mall, Timonium and Pikesville, the last opening in 1989.
Then, one by one, each succumbed for a variety of reasons. Bernie said security problems and the cost of rent and common space fees prompted them to close the Mondawmin store in the 1990s. Business in Timonium and downtown flattened out, and those stores closed in the 2000s, Bernie said.
The Krieger brothers' four children had careers of their own and were not interested in carrying on the family business. Bernie wanted to spend more time with his wife in Florida, which meant Rich might have to hire someone to replace him.
The business has not been growing, Bernie said, even as the cost of doing business, including the rent and shipping, keeps rising. Meanwhile, competition, including online shopping, siphoned off some of their trade.
The plus-size women's clothing category has been expanding, however, said Margie Johnson, president of Shop Talk, a Virginia-based retail consulting firm. While she has not studied Lexington Lady's business, she said stores such as Fashion Bug, Forever 21, Lane Bryant and Ashley Stewart have been getting into the plus-size market, offering merchandise at lower prices than the Baltimore store.
Both Johnson and Christine Carter, owner of Epps Consulting in Baltimore, said small, independent stores need to offer a robust online and social media presence to keep pace.
With the Pikesville lease coming to an end, the Krieger brothers decided not to renew. They're staying on a month-to-month basis, until at least the end of the year, Bernie said, or until all the merchandise is sold.
In the past few weeks, they've been getting the place ready for the last act in an 81-year Baltimore run.
They sent out invitations to about 600 of their best customers to a five-hour "VIP Party" on Tuesday for first crack at discounts. They put signs up on the walls: "Closing Forever!," "Everything Must Go!" "Thank You For 81 Great Years!" They plastered the storefront with signs advertising discounts of 30 percent to 70 percent. They set up a table in the store with cheese and crackers, fruit and vegetables, and bottles of sparkling cider.
On Tuesday afternoon, they opened the front door. Some 20 women were waiting in line to get in.
"I hate that they're closing," said Barbara Shaw, a retired city schoolteacher, who figured she'd been shopping at Krieger family stores for 50 years. She was out there waiting for the store to open, as the women wondered aloud where they would go now to find clothes that fit properly, things that they were not likely to see other women wearing.
Some talked about trying to find another boutique somewhere, or shopping online, but it would not be the same.
"Richard is just superb," said Marsha Cohen, a retired Social Security Administration lawyer who's been shopping at the Pikesville store for 20 years. "I don't come here on Tuesdays because that's his day off. If I can't find something, he can find it for me. He can find everything, and he's a nice guy."