Stebbins Anderson marks 150 years of doing business in Towson
By Nelson Coffin
Apr 21, 2017 at 3:56 PM
Owner Ken Knight talks about Stebbins Anderson, at The Shops at Kenilworth in Towson on Thursday, April 13, 2017. The store is getting ready to celebrate its 150th anniversary at the end of April. Video by Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun media Group
For the past century and a half, Stebbins Anderson has been changing with the times.
Founded as a coal, lumber and hardware business in 1867 named the Cochrane Lumber Co., the Towson retail fixture is celebrating its 150th year of serving local customers.
In 1911, the lumber company was sold to a Mr. Stebbins and a Mr. Anderson — their first names are unknown — and the name was changed to the Stebbins Anderson Coal and Lumber Co. Inc., according to the store's website. Subsequent owners J.W. Edelen and J. Harry West shortened the name to Stebbins-Anderson Co. in 1926.
The company was purchased by Richard Powers in 1979 and was sold to current owners Ken and Bonnie Knight in 2015.
For its first nine decades, the business was located at 305 York Road, in the heart of Towson, between Susquehanna and Chesapeake avenues, just north of the long-gone Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad bridge.
Once occupying 40,000 square feet of retail space on two floors, Stebbins Anderson is now housed on the 20,000-square foot ground floor only.
Trader Joe's grocery store, which relocated from Towson Circle to the Kenilworth mall last month, and Kenilworth Wine & Spirits, now share the top floor of the mall.
Through all the changes, the Knights have remained optimistic about Stebbins Anderson's future, in part because of its long tenure in the Towson retail market.
"When I was in high school, I remember my dad saying that he was going to go over to Stebbins," said Ken Knight, who graduated from Overlea High School in 1967 and took accounting courses at the University of Baltimore. "He said that you might pay a little more to shop there, but that it was worth it. It's always been a family-owned business, and it still is. Not many businesses are like that today."
How the store sells its products is constantly evolving, the Knights said.
"You have to enjoy what you're doing," said Bonnie Knight, who married Ken in 1973 and raised a son and two daughters with him. "You have to keep changing things, too. You have to keep up with the times."
The couple learned the business while Ken Knight was comptroller under former owner Richard Powers; and Bonnie Knight was brought in to work during the Christmas season, which is still the busiest time of year for an enterprise that boasts $4 million in annual sales and has 40 full and part-time employees, according to Ken Knight.
The store also continues to offer the Stebbins for Her boutique, which sells Vera Bradley handbags, Pandora jewelry and a wide array of gifts. Stebbins for Her accounts for 12 percent of overall sales, Ken Knight said.
'A clean store'
On a recent day, Janet Goonan, who said she has been a Stebbins Anderson customer since 1980, made the trip from White Marsh to shop at the store.
"It's not that far to come and they have such nice things here," Goonan said. "It's such a clean store."
Longtime sales clerk Peggy Schneider rang up Goonan's purchases.
The 82-year-old Mays Chapel resident said that she was a customer back when Stebbins Anderson was on York Road, but applied to work at the newer location a decade ago, after retiring from being a finance manager for Verizon.
"I love working here," Schneider said. "It helps keep my mind sharp, and Bonnie and Ken are great to work for."
Another customer, Lutherville's Jane McNamara, said that she has always loved the store.
"You always can get good quality products here," the great-grandmother of eight said. "It's just a happy shopping atmosphere, and I like the size of the mall, too. I always feel safe here."
Debbie Pickel, Stebbins Anderson's office manager and comptroller, said that she has seen plenty of changes in her 31 years with the company.
"You just have to be a lot smarter these days with all the competition from big box stores and the Internet." she said.
To help them compete with online outlets in the sale of bedroom furniture, for example, the Knights have instituted what they call "The Endless Aisle." It's a 42-inch touchscreen through which customers can browse for and order items that are shipped to the store and then delivered to the customer's home by Stebbins Anderson's in-house transport staff.
"The product comes to us and we deliver it to you," Ken Knight said. "If something goes wrong, we take care of it. It's a win-win for the customer and it gives us more products to sell without actually having the inventory on hand."
Carrying on the Stebbins Anderson tradition while being nimble enough to make tweaks when warranted, is something the Knights said they are are happy to do.
"If we don't like a product, I can snap my fingers and make a change," Ken Knight said. "If I don't feel comfortable owning a certain product, then I won't have it in the store. We can make changes on the fly that bigger companies can't."
The new owner of The Shops at Kenilworth wants to knock out the walls to create a knock-out new shopping center with windows, more places to eat and a rooftop terrace to help boost sales at the neighborhood center. But the $20 million in changes aren't meant to alter the flavor of the small Towson mall, known for summer movies and holiday trains, easy in-and-out trips and longtime local tenants.