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Wave of multigenerational retailers in Baltimore close their doors

David Tarlow sat hunched over a wooden table in the workshop behind his Baltimore store, carefully matching pieces of fur, easing them through an ancient sewing machine, then turning over the garment to smooth the seam with a special knife.

Besides selling and storing fur coats and jackets at Tarlow's Furs, a fixture on North Charles Street since 1939, Tarlow designs, remakes and alters the luxury outerwear for customers who often go back decades. Longtime customers have remained loyal, and younger generations of fur-wearing women have come along, but at age 84 and facing surgery, Tarlow has decided to retire and close his doors for good.

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"My customers are more upset than I am," said Tarlow, surrounded by racks of sheared mink and Russian sable coats and jackets as he launched a store-closing sale Wednesday. "This is a lost trade in this country."

The shop Tarlow took over from his father more decades ago than he can remember is among a handful of longtime independent Baltimore merchants who recently announced plans to close by year's end. Owners of Morstein's Jewelers, a third-generation family-owned retailer in Federal Hill, and Lexington Lady, a women's apparel retailer established in the city 81 years ago, also are retiring and have no family members interested or available to fill their shoes.

For many, the closures represent the fading away of a long-disappearing era in which mom-and-pop shops were the rule, merchants knew customers by name and taste, and families passed on businesses to sons and daughters.

"There's not going to be another Mr. Tarlow. There's not going to be another Mr. Morstein," said Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, a longtime customer of Tarlow's and a former Waverly shopkeeper.

It's become more and more difficult for independent retailers to start up and stay in business, said Shapiro, whose family ran a department store for several decades in Highlandtown until in the 1950s, and who used to run the Old Waverly History Exchange & Tea Room.

She said she tries to patronize family businesses that compete with chains, "but people don't think about going there. They are automatically conditioned to go to the chains or to go online."

The three businesses' owners said they had to adapt to changing styles and trends and cater to shoppers' needs to stay in business so long.

But such long-lived shops also have earned their customers' trust and become part of the fabric of the city, said Margie Johnson, president of Shop Talk, a Virginia Beach, Va.-based retail consulting firm.

"People go where they feel the integrity and trusted adviser is in place," she said.

The closing of such old-line stores is typical these days, she said.

"For … that generation and that era, the type of business when they started it was not only a business, but it was their life, their lifestyle and an income," she said. "For many of them, the goal was never about expansion and multiple stores and other cities. It was their life. It played a different role than the type of new startups, which are positioned to grow and expand as they morph into chains."

Deciding to close a shop that has sold and designed jewelry in the city for more than a century was difficult for third-generation owner Jules "Sonny" Morstein. The jeweler, now at 1114 Light St., was established as a watchmaker by his grandfather, William Morstein, in 1898 in East Baltimore. Morstein started working for his father, Jules, a half-century ago.

"When I got here it was all retail, and there were very few places to eat or drink," Morstein said of Federal Hill. "We were busy from Thanksgiving to Christmas. You couldn't walk on Light Street."

He stayed as the neighborhood lost department store anchors such as Princess Shops and Epstein's and struggled with high vacancies. And he benefited as an infusion of restaurants helped boost occupancies and breathe new life into the district.

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"I love it here," he said. "I love the people. The customers are friends. The neighborhood is wonderful."

But "it's just time," he said of his retirement. "I'm going to be 70 and in good health and would like to look for other things to do."

The end of one of the city's oldest full-service jewelers — with an owner who has been active in neighborhood issues — will be a loss for the city, said Ackneil M. Muldrow II, a consultant with ParkerMuldrow & Associates on North Charles Street, who has worked on community issues with Morstein through the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce.

"One of the things you lose is the historical and institutional knowledge of a community," Muldrow said. "When a chain comes in, they have information about buying patterns but not the history of a community. They're an institution that will be missed by people far and wide, not just people in that area."

Muldrow recalled going to Morstein's when he needed a clock repaired. The shop told him they couldn't do the repair but referred him to someone who could.

"You can't call Kmart or Wal-Mart and ask them," he said.

His wife always liked the store for "the service, the personal touch," Muldrow said. "You felt you knew the owner and the owner knew you. They would call if they thought there was something she would like."

Some Baltimore shoppers already were mourning the impending loss of Lexington Lady, a specialty shop for women's plus sizes. Brothers Rich and Bernie Krieger, whose grandparents started Herman's clothing store on North Eutaw Street in 1933, are selling off the remaining inventory and won't renew the lease on their last store on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville. Though Herman's closed in 1960, the family had started a new discount clothing business, the Three & Five Shop, and Lexington Lady grew out of that, opening on West Lexington Street in 1977 and expanding into the suburbs with three more locations.

The Krieger brothers said their children had no interest in continuing the business.

Tarlow, too, has no one to carry on as a furrier; his two daughters and son went into other careers. He has worked in the shop mainly on his own and with a finisher, a 37-year employee who helps with cutting and sewing linings.

"The business has been growing, but it's very difficult because the labor is not there," said Tarlow, who has tried unsuccessfully to train apprentices over the years.

He learned the business from his parents, Benjamin and Fannye Tarlow, who established a shop in the early 1920s in the 3500 block of Park Heights Avenue near Carlin's Park. The family lived in an apartment above the store. Fannye Tarlow opened a second store in the early 1930s in Roland Park Shopping Center on Roland Avenue.

They closed both stores when they moved the business to Charles Street — a step up, especially for a Jewish merchant at that time, Tarlow said. He was about 9 years old when the boutique opened just south of the current location on North Charles, and he began working with his parents as a teenager.

"My father was very skilled at what he did," said Tarlow. "It's a highly skilled business. That's why you don't see furriers opening up. You learn it by working in the shop. There's no school."

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When he took over, Tarlow recalled wanting to take the business in a different direction by trying to appeal to younger customers. Today, customers include attorneys and other professional women in their 30s and 40s. He sees demand for reversible styles that can be worn for more than special occasions, and for re-purposing existing furs.

While the popularity of furs waned amid animal rights protests and concerns, it has seen something of a comeback in recent years.

To Shapiro, who said Tarlow has crafted custom-made coats and hats that she has designed, fur has never gone out of style.

"The only good thing about winter is fur," she said. "It's like a man in a tuxedo. Any fur coat will make any woman feel beautiful."

Tarlow has sold his building and needs to move out by the first week of January. Until then, he'll be finishing up orders, selling inventory and arranging to have customers collect stored furs.

One longtime customer, Gale Pradhan, stopped in last week to pick up her coats. Before leaving, she gave Tarlow a hug and promised to call after his surgery. Pradhan, who is retired and lives part time in Owings Mills, has bought several Tarlow coats over the past few decades and has had others "remodeled."

"You're dealing with someone who cares about how his furs look and how you look," she said. "When the styles changed, he was able to decide how to change them. I never felt like he was hurrying you. You felt like you were the only one when he was dealing with you."

For years, Tarlow's family, which has grown to include seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter, urged him to retire. But he wasn't ready.

"My life is on Charles Street," Tarlow said.

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