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Old Baltimore retailer Goldenberg’s catered to thrifty shoppers

It was a different style of selling at stores like Goldenberg’s, an old Baltimore retailer known for low prices and no attitude. It was a store where Blacks and whites shopped side by side. The tennis shoes you bought were not designer. They just fit and you wore them until they gave out.

Goldenberg’s corner, at South Broadway and Fleet Street, made news this week when the city’s Commission for Historic Architectural and Preservation approved a developer’s plan to allow the current building owners to add several additional stories, creating apartments and other amenities.

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While the corner retail property was known most recently as Super Linens, the shop was Goldenberg’s in the memories of traditional and thrifty Baltimore shoppers.

The Broadway Goldenberg’s fit squarely into the Southeast Baltimore shopping district, along with Hecht’s Reliable Stores, Shocket’s, the Liberty Bar, Castine’s hardware, Spaghetti House and the passenger ticket agency of the French Line. (Remember, Fells Point was once a commercial maritime neighborhood.)

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It was a mini-chain. The main downtown Goldenberg’s was larger (it opened after the Fells Point store) and faced Lexington Market. As the chain’s largest store, the one downtown operated like its Howard Street competitors around the corner, but on a more modest scale.

Goldenberg’s may have sat on the lowest economic rung of the city’s department store ladder, but its no-frills ambience scored well with Baltimore’s famously thrifty shoppers. Its advertisements in The Sun proclaimed in large type, “It could only happen at Goldenberg’s.”

The store did a thriving business in cheap shoes. Clerks used cord to tie shoes in pairs (no boxes) and strung them over protruding brackets on columns that reached from floor to ceiling.

As changing shopping habits forced its bankruptcy in 1992, the owners announced its closing late that year and blamed it partly on fear of crime. Goldenberg customers traditionally carried and paid in cash. The owners also cited the loss of business due to saturation advertising by national discount chains.

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Once known as Goldenberg’s Merchandise Fair, the store opened in 1913, founded by Aron Goldenberg, a Bessarabia immigrant.

“He knew where to be when people got paid,” said the store’s then owner, Alvin L. Caplan, in a 1992 Baltimore Sun article.

It was a family and neighborhood business. Aron Goldenberg, his wife, Anna, and their four children — Bessie, Florence, Jack and Joseph — joined the business. They shepherded its growth out of Southeast Baltimore to spots such as nearby Highlandtown and on to Walbrook, Pimlico and Gardenville in Northeast Baltimore.

“I’d go to New York late in the season. If a manufacturer had racks of boys’ Easter suits that hadn’t sold, I’d buy them up and we’d put them out at $7. We’d have people out the doors,” the owner said in 1992.

Goldenberg’s had tables and counters stacked with merchandise. Long before there were dollar stores, it had men’s shirts and work pants for $1.

The basements of certain Goldenberg’s stores were forests of suspended patent leather and cordovan.

Baltimore customers were never really prepared for winter and if snow came, they headed to the store for black rubber galoshes called Arctics.

Goldenberg’s was the go-to source (along with competitor Epstein’s) for the lightweight cotton duster, a housecoat favored by Baltimore women to wear around the house on warm days.

The downtown store was a couple blocks away from Baltimore’s old garment-making district.

“On Friday afternoons, the women who worked in the old loft district got paid,” Caplan said. “They came to us and spent money. We did more per hour between 3:30 and 6:30 than on a busy Saturday.”

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