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Tochterman's is timeless
Dee and Tony Tochterman pose in front of a display of old tackle with Dee holding the kind of float and handline rig made by Tommy Tochterman, Jr. (Bill May photo)

"Tochterman's."

This word is spoken with reverence by fisherman throughout the mid-Atlantic.

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As Tochterman's enters its 100th anniversary at 1925 Eastern Avenue in Fells Point, the original family home, here are a few statistics: 6,000 square feet of retail space in five contiguous buildings, 650 different conventional reels, 800 different conventional rods, 400 different fly rods and reels to be expanded to 600 with the completion of the Lefty Kreh Fly Fishing Room on a few years. Its million-dollar inventory covers every aspect of mid-Atlantic fishing from lures to hooks to bait buckets to snap swivels to rod and reel repair to you name it.

Tochterman's combines an inventory of the latest fishing equipment, in a range of competitive prices to meet the skills and wallets of the range of fisherman. Proprietors, Tony and Dee Tochterman and their staff of four are knowledgeable with an old-school friendly and personal style.

Staff tell the story of a man coming to the store just invited to his first fishing trip and wanting to "get something" to bring. Tony spent nearly an hour with this tyro getting information on when and where they would be fishing, then selling him a bottom rig, showing him how to add a snelled hook then getting him to add the second, showing him how to add the sinker and tying on the rig, then getting the customer to do these things. It was a sale of a few dollars.

It was the same level of service given a new charter captain who came to Tochterman's to buy a dozen complete trolling outfits with all the accessory equipment, a sale of many thousands of dollars.

How to capture the secret magic of the place? How does this mom and pop tackle store thrive in a changing world of mega-stores, Internet marketing, fracturing families and youth losing interest in outdoor pursuits?

The Tochterman approach is rooted in its family history. Thomas G. Tochterman worked in the nearby fish market, where refrigeration was primitive. So, on Feb. 8 he began bringing home expired fish and crabs to sell as bait. The fishing business took off, and he soon began stocking cane poles, hooks, bobbers and other gear plus snacks. Sons Thomas Jr. and Edward pitched in as youths, making bobbers and spreaders, casting sinker and working on the store.

When the founder died in 1936, Tommy, Jr. took over, with part-times assistance from Eddie, and in his 50 years of operation expanded Tochterman's to an institution and Fells Point landmark.

Upon his retirement in 1986, Tony took over. At age 36 he was well prepared. He began working in the store, dusting shelves and stocking, at age 4 and began receiving paychecks at age 12. Dee joined the store in the early '90's and eventually became Mrs. Tochterman.

Bubbly and enthusiastic, she embodies both the friendliness and professionalism of Tochterman's. Known throughout the East Coast as "The Worm Lady" for her specialty, she single-handedly operates their highly profitable bloodworm bait business. Her study of the environment and biology of the bloodworms, including having jugs of Maine seawater shipped to the store so she could match the salinity of the shoreline sands of their Maine and Canada origins, and daily care of the bloodworms has made Tochterman's the East Coast source for this highly effective bait. Over 400 weekly customers from April through November know to place orders weeks or months in advance to secure their bloodworms.

Like any family business, it's tough work, Tony relates, and the returns are not worth it in terms of the time and money invested — "unless that's what you were born to do."

Tony and Dee have no plans to retire.

Tony says he lives through the fishing stories of his customers. I got a taste of this during our interview as a local fisherman, Ed Cichocki, brought in photographs of two pike over 40 inches he caught a couple of years before fishing from shore in Loch Raven. Tony and Dee clearly took as much delight in his accomplishment as Ed.

Tochterman's is "old school" throughout its operation. There's minimal computerization; advertising only in local print media; no website, newsletter or mailing list; a bare Facebook presence which Tony ignores. "Word of mouth is about as much as we can handle," Tony summarizes. Yet weekly customers come to Tochterman's from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, District of Columbia and, less frequently, West Virginia, and 10-15 percent of weekly customers are newcomers to the store.

Parking is only available on nearby streets in this safe neighborhood, and some is metered. But Tony advises one can usually find a spot in front of the store between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., when most residents are at work or at play.

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Tony's concerns extend far beyond his customer base. When I covered MDTU's City Catch several years ago, I learned all the tackle for the 100 Baltimore City kids fishing that day, rods, reels, line, terminal tackle, was donated by Tochterman's for the kids to keep. This is but one of many outreach programs for city and state youth Tochterman's is involved in.

In our interview he spoke movingly of children in the neighborhood around his store who had never experienced the outdoors or even seen the water, the Patapsco River, that feeds Chesapeake Bay, within blocks of their homes.

He's also working on a veteran's program and in efforts to produce a movie about the late Baltimorean Joe Brooks, widely considered the father of modern fly fishing.

Tochterman's has won two major awards from the Office of the Mayor of Baltimore and several sporting industry awards.

In coming months media will flock to the store trying to somehow capture the secret of Tochterman's. As in the past they'll cite business savvy, dedication to customer service, family pride, love of fishing and fishermen, hard work, the sheer enjoyment of operating this family store. They may mention, as past writers failed to, the extensive yet quiet community service. This is nibbling around the edges.

I knew Tommy, Jr. and his brother, Eddie. I know Tony and Dee and their current staff.

The 100-year secret of Tochterman's magic is character.

410-857-7896

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