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Bargain-basement store hits the skids MARYLAND/REGION


There are no counters brimming with toys and no mountains of holiday merchandise at Goldenberg's Bargain Outlets this season.

What would have been the 80th Christmas for the Baltimore store that is a household name in low-price merchandise is now in the midst of a court-ordered bankruptcy and liquidation sale.

"Our doors will be closed in a few weeks," says Alvin L. Caplan, whose grandfather opened Goldenberg's Bargain House on South Broadway in Fells Point in 1913. Caplan himself has worked full time at the family-owned business since 1941.

Aron Goldenberg, the firm's founder, was an immigrant from Bessarabia (today's Moldova), who was adept at selling moderately priced goods to budget-conscious buyers.

"He knew where to be when people got paid," says Caplan, 67.

Goldenberg, his wife, Anna, and their four children -- Bessie, Florence, Jack and Joseph -- worked in the business, which expanded out of Fells Point into other neighborhoods. At one time, there were Goldenberg's stores from Highlandtown to Walbrook, and from Pimlico to Gardenville.

"My father and grandfather had a real feel for business. They could add up a long column of figures in their heads. They had fine minds for math," says Barbara Goldenberg Gamse, a granddaughter of the founder.

The stores were famous for their counters and tables loaded with merchandise -- spools of thread, cards of straight pins and memo books -- priced at 4 and 8 cents. "Oceans of Notions," said the signs.

Baltimoreans often dropped the firm's middle syllable and called the place "Goldberg's."

It was a neighborhood store familiar to thousands of Baltimoreans who shopped for roll-up window blinds, bath mats, cotton housedresses and BVDs.

Inexpensive footwear was the store's best seller. Employees stitched the left and right feet of a pair of shoes together with a piece of string. The unboxed shoes were then hung over shelf brackets attached to poles. The whole basement of certain stores was a forest of suspended patent leather and cordovan.

If bad winter weather was predicted, the store often sold out of black rubber galoshes called Arctics. Customers got ready for Baltimore's 4-inch January snows by buying up great quantities of boots the previous July.

Goldenberg's was one of the last retail bastions of the cotton duster, a lightweight housecoat favored by Baltimore women to wear around the house on warm days.

Competition in the neighborhood bargain stores was brisk. Shoppers checked the wares of the old Irvin's, Epstein's and Goldenberg's with a sharp eye toward a price differential of a few pennies. But of all its long-time competitors, Goldenberg's hung on the longest. It once had 10 outlets. Three are now open.

"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," Caplan says.

Goldenberg's was firmly rooted along the old shopping thoroughfares of the city's densely populated residential areas -- Highlandtown, Walbrook, Monument Street. But there was also a thriving downtown store on Eutaw Street facing Lexington Market. This store, demolished about 15 years ago for subway construction, could be a madhouse.

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

He cites several reasons why the firm, of which he is chief executive officer, declared bankruptcy.

"Primarily, I blame it on the drug wars in this city. This is a cash store. People are just afraid to walk around the neighborhoods with money in their pockets in the places where we're located. We took credit cards, but those sales represented less than one-half of 1 per cent of our business," Caplan says.

Also, he says, "People have wheels and they watch television. The bigger discount chains can beat us with television advertising. And the weekend flea markets that have opened all around hurt us too. We tried to make it for a long time, but we came up $265,000 short. Now it's up to the court to see that our creditors get paid," Caplan says.

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