Hank Shofer is not certain of the year his grandfather went into business. It all began with a bicycle repair shop. A Sun ad from February 1916 notes that Shofer’s Cycle Store was open on South Charles Street. “The Big Store with Little Prices,” the notice stated.
Harry Shofer, the founder of the firm, realized the advantages the South Baltimore-Cross Street Market business community offered. In the late 1920s, he jumped when Hecht’s Furniture House pulled out of the 900 block of South Charles Street and acquired its buildings.
Harry Shofer became a retailing legend in what today is called Federal Hill but was once proudly South Baltimore. He started small — at first he did not sell furniture because that market was pretty much tied up by the older established Shaivitz family. Harry Shofer sold radios, record players and later clock radios, washing machines and household goods.
“Besides, Shaivitz and Shofer — the names were close — and one block apart. You might get confused. But the best thing you can have in selling is two people selling in the same place. The activity draws customers,” said Henry “Hank” Shofer, a few days after he announced he would close his furniture business.
Shofer’s for furniture outlived its competition. He outlasted old South Baltimore’s Four Besche Brothers and Epstein’s and, not so far away, Royal (Monroe Street), Bagby (Harbor East) and many more.
“My grandfather came from Eastern Europe. He also came from a Depression background. He started with very little, but all of a sudden he had all this stuff,” said his grandson, who worked at one time alongside his father, Herbert Shofer, and the founder, Harry. It was a business with the pride and personality of the people who ran it.
Harry Shofer liked to say he could tell if a customer was creditworthy just by looking in their eyes, his grandson said. “And more often than not, he was right.”
Hank Shofer keeps framed photographs and some old newspaper ads in a conference room. There’s a picture of dozens of Majestic radio sales people assembled for a banquet at the old Southern Hotel in 1930. His firm also sold Victrolas (radio and record players) and all the stuff that housekeepers wanted.
There’s an ad for portable cedar closets for storage of winter garments.
“Houses in South Baltimore never had enough closet space,” Hank Shofer said. “I should know. My family also invested heavily in real estate around here.”
The homes didn’t have lawns either, but the store offered push lawn mowers, summer rugs for those who changed carpets summer and winter, as well as slip covers. What little space there was in the backyard might go for a metal, swaying glider for summertime sitting out on, say, Riverside Avenue.
Over the years, there could be drama. Harry Shofer’s store erupted in flames on May 27, 1953, at 2 a.m. The fire went to six alarms and, even though it was late, the blaze drew 1,000 spectators, The Sun reported.
The company emerged from the fire for a grand reopening ceremony.
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Hank Shofer said this week that it may take a while to close down the store because his business remains strong. He looks forward to managing the inventory of properties the Shofer family has assembled throughout Federal Hill and South Baltimore.
“Years ago the city started a dollar house program up the street,” Shofer said of what is now the Otterbein neighborhood. “There was a prediction that it would become the next Georgetown. No, Baltimore is not Washington.”
“We had a warehouse for eons on Warren Avenue overlooking Federal Hill Park. It had been a twine factory. Marty Azola [a building restorer and contractor] made it a palace. It’s a much better condo than it ever was a warehouse."