Drivers pull up to the front door of J.P. Benson Sons and call out, "Is this a hardware store?"
The shopfront at 36th Street and Roland Avenue in Hampden looks like a store in which to buy paint and nails, but there is no sign. Benson's is so well known in the North Baltimore neighborhood that it doesn't require formal identification.
After all, how many hardware establishments can claim continuous ownership by the same family since 1873?
Benson's is probably more of a museum than a going concern. A few customers walk in for a duplicate key or a washer, but day-to-day business is not exactly brisk. The store at 1002 W. 36th St. has no air conditioning but it has creaking wooden floors, tin ceilings, skylights, flypaper and Victorian counters. The phone is so outdated its type is often sold at antique shops. Customers love the unhurried pace of Benson's.
"So many of the people around here have gotten old. It's not like it was when people from Roland Park sent their maids in here for brooms and mops and light bulbs and their gardeners for fertilizer. We used to have dozens of charge accounts.
Now we only have a few," said Rosalyn Benson, the owner's wife.
Her husband, George Wilton Benson, is the great-grandson of J.P. Benson, the firm's founder, whose portrait still hangs near the store's massive iron safe. George Benson began his association with the shop in the 1930s when he would sell discarded gallon glass jugs to his grandfather who had by then inherited the business from the founding Benson.
One of George Benson's treasures is a framed 1937 letter from his grandfather. It's written in fine, Spencerian script and is phrased in a strict, business tone. It reports that the hardware store will be pleased to accept the cleaned and washed gallon jugs that the boy brought to the store.
"Beauty shops and undertakers would throw those jugs away. I'd find them and bring them here," Benson said. His grandfather then used the containers for Varsol cleaning fluid, turpentine, linseed oil, kerosene, neat's-foot oil, banana oil, floor oil, Japan dryer and cleaning alcohol. Benson took over the business in 1972 after the last of his uncles died.
In recent years, as the pace of business slowed, there's been more time to chat with customers. Oldtimers sit on the store's chairs and drink coffee. Children spend a few coins buying rabbit food, a holdover from the era when Benson's sold hay and animal feed by the ton.
"They used to bring their dogs for me to babysit while they went to the bank," Mrs. Benson said of neighborhood residents.
George W. Benson III, the couple's 41-year-old son who teaches at Friends School, worked behind the counter some years ago.
"It's been a Mom-and-Pop place. I have memories of a man who walked in and wanted glue for his false teeth. Another man needed blue spray paint to change the color of his wife's shoes. The couple had to be at a wedding in 15 minutes," the younger Benson said.
The store was known as the place to buy Varsol, a form of paint thinner used by Baltimore housekeepers to remove wax from pine and oak floors.
"We don't sell it any more. People will have to buy cans of paint thinner. It's hard to believe that young people are covering up oak parquet floors with tile and carpeting," Mrs. Benson said.
An earlier Benson store stood about two blocks west of the present location. The family owned the entire north side of the 1000 block of W. 36th St., long the commercial center of Hampden. Because the store is one of the pillars of the neighborhood, the Bensons donated half the block to build the old Grace Methodist Church of which the family was a founding member.
The other half of the real estate was used for the three-story brick store -- it once had a large grocery and meat section -- its lumber yard, barn for hay and seed storage and a couple of houses for family members. It's an amazing complex of structures that has been changed little over the years.
"We had 14 draft horses that pulled our wagons," said Benson.
The family once did a big business in building supplies. It had its own sand pit and lumber yard. Today, most of the goods sold get carried out in small paper bags.