I often drop into the Eddie's of Charles Village Market for a quart of milk and wind up discussing the neighborhood grocery history of Baltimore with the store's owner, Jerry Gordon. Gordon has been at this store, on and off, for 51 years. His late father, Eddie Gordon, bought it in 1962.
Jerry Gordon recalls that he went to work at the age of 5 when his grandmother handed him a feather duster and told him to busy himself at the old Eddie's store in Catonsville.
He grew up in the service-intensive world of the neighborhood grocery store. His great-uncle Edward Levy was the original Eddie. His store was in Dundalk.
There were once 26 Eddie's markets within the Beltway. Some flourished in compact sites, such as on McElderry Street, in urban areas today considered food deserts. The Eddie's stories were generally independently owned, but their proprietors worked together in their advertising and buying. Now there are four stores left: Gordon's store in Charles Village, and others in Mount Vernon, Roland Park and in Baltimore County.
"I learned a good lesson when I was working at the store in the Village of Cross Keys," Gordon said. "Morris Tossman, my father's partner, told me the customer is important. Learn their names. If you learn their names, they will return."
Gordon trains his workers to put service first and be respectful of customers. He seems pleased that John Waters stops in on occasion. He recalls theater owner Clarisse Mechanic and Margaret Frenkil, whose husband, Victor, owned the Belvedere. They both shopped here.
"In this neighborhood, I tell my staff to be on the lookout. That customer could be a Hopkins Nobel Prize winner," he said.
It was those customers who rallied behind Gordon in 2013 when the Johns Hopkins University and its developers discussed putting a rival grocery store, a national chain, in a building that will also house student apartments at 33rd and St. Paul streets.
The structure (owned by a developer on land owned by the university) is rising out of the ground this summer. But the neighborhood sentiment prevailed: The ground floor space once considered for the grocery will now house a pharmacy.
"I'm delighted to have 500 new residents here," Gordon said. "When the parents come in with the students, we interact with them. I give the parents my card. And in a few months, we start getting requests for birthday cakes to be delivered to their children."
Gordon told me this is one of his slow seasons. Summer school ended Friday and fall classes are still weeks away. While other markets are swamped at Christmas and New Year's, his is practically empty.
"But the Monday after Thanksgiving is one of our heaviest days the year. The students return and restock," he said.
Gordon is a Johns Hopkins Blue Jays lacrosse fanatic. He's named one of his best-selling delicatessen sandwiches the Smokin' Jays. Other sandwiches and salads were named for his two daughters, Jamie and Annie, and his grandson Ethan.
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Gordon holds his own on St. Paul Street. The next block, facing the construction site of the new apartments, has a Chipotle, Pot Belly, Starbucks, pizza shop and a sandwich shop.
"I have a full delicatessen counter where people can get food just they way they want it," he said. He discussed an idea for a new takeout entree: a mac-and-crabmeat dish.
He also stocks local brands. He says he has trouble keeping $5.99 pints of Taharka Brothers ice cream on the shelf. Salty caramel is another big seller, along with mops and sponges when students return in the fall.
Timothy Chriss is a regular: He stops by for a cup of morning coffee.
"His store is immaculately clean and it's very well managed," he said. "For a compact grocery store, it is well stocked. He has premium olive oil, cheeses and jams. Jerry is a hands-on manager too. He runs the store his way."
Jerry's wife, Darlene, who works alongside him certain days of the week, calls her husband "the mayor of Charles Village."