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Shofer’s Furniture, more than century old Federal Hill retailer, will close

Shofer’s Furniture, a landmark in Federal Hill for more than a century and one of Baltimore’s oldest stores, will close by January.

Owner Henry “Hank” Shofer, the third generation family owner, said Friday he plans to wind down a business that had been losing ground to online sellers even before the coronavirus hit and likely would face a difficult rebound.

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Even though sales at the upscale store have benefited during the pandemic as consumers spent less on travel and dining and more on their homes, Shofer found himself working harder with a smaller staff of about 25. And he is convinced stronger sales won’t last.

“The retail climate is changing, and more and more people are buying online, and people will go back to those habits,” he said.

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Younger people tend to want to buy even furniture online, without wanting to try it out at a store, while the clientele that Shofer’s serves that is willing to pay for fine furnishings is disappearing, he said.

“Right now we’re doing pretty well," he said, “but I don’t think that’s going to last forever.”

Shofer said he wants to close the store, which touts itself as one of the largest furniture showrooms in Maryland, no later than the end of January. It fills a city bock at 930 S. Charles St. with more than 70,000 square feet of space on five floors with assorted furniture styles and price ranges.

Shofer’s immigrant grandfather, Harry W. Shofer, started the business in 1914 as a neighborhood bicycle shop nearby. The store evolved and moved to its current spot in the early 1930s, taking over a former Hecht’s department store building.

Herbert M. Shofer, the founder’s son, became president of the family-owned business in 1983. He died in 2015 at age 91. Hank Shofer took over from his father in 1996. But his three children were not interested in continuing the tradition.

Shofer’s is nothing to me without a Shofer running it,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable selling it.”

News of the closing took some in the city by surprise.

Shofer’s has been “an anchor for the neighborhood,” said Cathy Rosenbaum, executive director of Federal Hill Main Streets. “It sets the tone in lots of ways.”

Rosenbaum said she has worked closely with Shofer, who heads the neighborhood’s business association, on initiatives to keep Federal Hill’s business district attractive for visitors and residents alike, such as lighting and beautification projects.

Shofer’s has been “a good corporate citizen, good at reaching out and supporting the community,” Rosenbaum said, while its owner “is very connected in the neighborhood and good at bringing people together.”

Shofer, who owns other properties in the neighborhood, said he plans to continue his role in the business association and remain active in the neighborhood.

Retail analysts have said they expect home furnishings stores to be among the hardest hit in the economic crisis spurred by the pandemic-related closures as consumers shift in greater numbers than expected to online shopping. Clothing and electronics stores, too, face a challenging future.

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One report, by analysts at UBS, predicted 100,000 retail locations could shutter in the next five years as the health crisis pushes ever more consumers online. Smaller retailers, already struggling in a growing online environment, would be the hardest hit, the report said.

“It’s a challenge, and retail is one of the toughest challenges, even more than restaurants,” said Sonny Morstein, who ran his family’s Morstein’s Jewelers on Light Street in Federal Hill for five decades before closing it six years ago. “And certainly with the Internet, it’s difficult.”

Morstein, a past president of the neighborhood’s business association, has stayed active in the group.

“It’s a loss for the city, it’s a loss for the neighborhood,” Morstein said of Shofer’s closing. “It’s traumatic when you close a family business.”

Founder Harry W. Shofer came to Baltimore from Lithuania in 1904. According to his 1993 obituary in the Baltimore Sun, he was 17 when he opened a shop in 1914 in the 900 block of S. Charles St., that rented, sold and repaired bicycles. He liked to say: “I walked off the boat in Locust Point and went right over to South Baltimore.”

The South Baltimore store later became a neighborhood radio, appliance and auto supply store. Then in 1936, Harry Shofer launched a specialty line of fine home furnishings that has been the store’s focus ever since.

“As a business which made a point of delivering personal service while staying abreast of the industry, Shofer’s rapidly attracted a large and loyal clientele,” the 1983 Sun story said.

Shofer’s decided to concentrate on one city store, instead of branching out to the suburbs. It survived the Great Depression and flight from the city in the 1960s that led other businesses to close or flee to the suburbs.

Henry Shofer said he’s long heard stories from customers about their parents and grandparents buying their furniture at the South Charles Street showroom.

“When you’ve been around a long time, people get to know you,” he said. “We’ve been a fixture here in Federal Hill all that time, just with different furniture and different clientele.”

Shofer plans to repurpose both the furniture showroom and a warehouse nearby on Leadenhall Street, leasing or selling space for new uses. He expects the space to generate interest and believes the city will rebound from current difficulties, such as high crime rates. He sees a bright future for Federal Hill.

With its proximity to Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, “when games are on, it’s an electrifying neighborhood,” he said. The city is "going to be back and better than ever, people have to give it some time.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Frederick N. Rasmussen contributed to this article.

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