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Recent book beckons to Hutzler's fans

Baltimore Sun

It's hard to believe that Hutzler's, the legendary Howard Street department store that provided goods and memorable services to Baltimoreans for 132 years, rang up its final sales two decades ago.

Just a decade earlier, according to Robert Hendrickson, author of "The Grand Emporiums: The Illustrated History of America's Great Department Stores" (published in 1979, things were different for Hutzler's.

The store, established in 1858, boasted yearly sales of $50 million and employed 3,500. The future looked rosy.

At the time, department store executive Angelo R. Arena, who would eventually escort Hutzler's to the department store graveyard, had not yet brought his supposed retailing expertise to Baltimore to head the store. He was busy making $300,000 as president of Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago.

Many Baltimoreans have grown up without enjoying a piece of coffee chiffon pie in the Howard Street store's Quixie restaurant or lunch in the Tea Room. They haven't had a chance to bring their children for a chat with Beau and Tinsel, the talking reindeer, in the Towson store at Christmastime or purchase a sports coat in the Harundale branch. They haven't sipped a perfectly stirred martini in the Valley View Room in Towson, where children also could attend "Breakfast with Santa" in early December. They haven't prowled the bridal department at Westview looking for the perfect wedding gown.

If you are old enough to remember these experiences, then Michael J. Lisicky's recently published book, "Hutzler's: Where Baltimore Shops," will bring back shopping bags full of memories. Those who weren't born then will wonder at what happened to such an elegant shopping destination.

If this doesn't become the hottest local holiday gift this year, I'll be very surprised. It's beautifully written, obviously by someone who has an affinity for department stores, and lavishly illustrated with photographs and advertisements that recall a more genteel time, when such stores were destinations, not a place where you simply roared in for a minute, flashed your credit card and vanished into your car in the mall parking lot.

Lisicky is an oboist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and also doubles as the "towne crier" of Fells Point. He's not a Baltimorean. He hails from South Jersey.

So, how did a guy from the Garden State, who grew up with such Philadelphia retail giants as John Wanamaker, Strawbridge & Clothier (where his mother worked) and Gimbel's, come to adore our Hutzler's?

"When you live in the Philadelphia area, you can travel to many different cities, large and small, within a two-hour drive," Lisicky explains in the book's introduction.

"I loved how each city seemed to have its own personality. Since my mother would always take us shopping, I always paid attention to the different stores. I loved all of the different names," he wrote.

"I loved all of the different logos. … When I saw Hess's, I knew we were in Allentown. When I saw Dunham's, I knew we were in Trenton. When I saw Hutzler's, I knew we were in Baltimore," recalls Lisicky.

From those trips, he remembered thinking how "invincible" Hutzler's looked as its buildings sprawled along Howard Street.

"Its downtown store seemed monumental yet personal," he writes, and speculated why the Art Deco lettering that crawled up the side of the 1932 addition spelled "Hutzler" rather than "Hutzler's."

He called Hutzler's the "Strawbridge & Clothier of Baltimore," a store that depended on a loyal customer base that went back generations.

A note in the book from filmmaker John Waters describes Hutzler's as the "A-list store" that was always a "step above the other three stores. It was a class act."

He adds that the store had a "great run."

"That's why people are so nostalgic about it. I don't think you're going to get anybody to say, 'I hated shopping at Hutzler's.' "

For years, the store's slogan was "A Gift From Hutzler's Means More," and its annual October "Occasion Extraodinaire" was eagerly awaited by shoppers.

What also is special about this book is that Lisicky interviewed former members of the Hutzler army. He was able to gather colorful reflections and informative anecdotes from Hutzler family members, store buyers, department managers and sales associates, as well as customers.

If he had postponed his paean to this great store by a decade or two, all those wonderful memories and history would no doubt have been lost.

By the 1970s, black clouds were gathering for Hutzler's. The decade saw the end of Hochschild Kohn and Stewart & Co., whose store was across the street from Hutzler's, and in 1988, The Hecht Co. gave up its retailing presence on Howard Street.

Arena, who had arrived in Baltimore to take over Hutzler's in 1983, announced that the Towson store, with $25 million in annual sales, would become its flagship store and home of the executive offices.

In 1984, Arena sold the Hutzler's landmark building to the city, and a year later unveiled the Palace store, built on the former Howard Street site of Hochschild's.

"The day the Palace store opened, it was a flop, a complete flop. It was an utter failure," David A. Hutzler, a member of the store's board, told the author.

The high-end customers it was designed for failed to appear, and by 1989 it had closed.

Desperate for money and with credit drying up, by the summer of 1989, Arena came to grips with the fact that Hutzler's days were numbered.

The closing of stores in Eastpoint, then White Marsh and finally Towson brought the Hutzler's era to an end. The man who had presided over its demise was nowhere to be found when the doors in Towson were locked in 1990 for the last time.

"It was one of the slowest declines in department store retailing," writes Lisicky. "Customers had nothing left but memories of the Baltimore institution, and for most, it was little better than watching an old friend die a slow death."

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