Up and down The Avenue, the topic of conversation among shoppers yesterday was the planned closing of Highlandtown's nearly 70-year-old F. W. Woolworth's store.
The store, in the 3500 block of Eastern Ave., is one of three in Baltimore that are due to close by the end of January. The other two are on Lexington Street downtown and in the Alameda Shopping Center in Northeast Baltimore.
Warren W. Aikey, the Eastern Avenue store's manager for the past four years, stood at the front door yesterday and fielded questions from dozens of customers.
"Oh no! They just can't close this one. No. Where I will I go?" said Cherby Worthington, who works at a tax accounting service a few doors away.
It was a scene of sorrow and surprise repeated in urban neighborhoods across the nation yesterday as the Woolworth Corp. parcelled out its store closing announcements.
The New York-based retailer had announced Wednesday that it would close 970 stores in the United States and Canada by Jan. 31, eliminating 13,000 jobs, including 67 in Baltimore. And yesterday, it announced which ones were the money losers and would have to close.
Woolworth said that the stores being closed -- 10 percent of its worldwide total -- had incurred $36 million in operating losses during the first half of 1993 and that the losses were double those in 1992.
The company said that it may reopen 250 of the stores as Foot Lockers or other kinds of outlets, but it would not say whether any of the doomed Baltimore stores would be revived. The company, which also operates Kinney Shoes, will take an after-tax charge of approximately $480 million to pay for the closings.
Although Woolworth wouldn't release a comprehensive list of closings, it appeared most were in urban neighborhoods.
Of the 16 Woolworth five-and-dimes that will remain open in Maryland, only three -- Greenmount Avenue, Reisterstown Plaza and Mount Clare Junction Shopping Center -- are in Baltimore. The rest are in Temple Hills, Landover, Silver Spring, Laurel, Westminster, Reisterstown in Baltimore County, Joppa Road, Bel Air, Essex, Perry Hall, Ritchie Highway, Baltimore National Pike and Security Boulevard.
The loss to city neighborhoods saddened everyone from shoppers to competing retailers.
"This is very depressing," said Bernie Krieger, the third generation of his family to sell clothes at the Lexington Lady store a block away from the downtown Woolworth's.
"It is another nail in the coffin" of downtown retailing, he said.
For a century, Woolworth's five-and-dimes have been familiar sights in most communities across the country, like the one on Eastern Avenue with its exterior sign of raised wood gold lettering against a crimson background and a striped canvas awning that extends along the front of the store.
In the Highlandtown store, nickel-plated entrance doors open onto a terrazzo floor. Inside, there's an old-fashioned tin ceiling and a 22-seat lunch counter. The first thing that greets your eye is a rack brimming with Halloween candy and cookies.
The heart of the Highlandtown Woolworth's is its lunch counter, which functions as a meeting place for the neighborhood's longtime residents, especially its elderly.
"This counter reminds me of an old-fashioned place to eat. I'm 73. I know how it was when I was young, and it was just like this," said Clara Michael Graham, who fits her doctor's appointments around breakfast and lunch at the Highlandtown store.
Six days a week
Next to her sat Marjorie Kelly, who lives in the 300 block of S. East Ave.
"I come here six days a week," said Mrs. Kelly. "I'm usually at the front door waiting for it to open. I have breakfast, do a little shopping on The Avenue and come back for lunch. Then maybe a little later I come back for a cup of coffee."
The waitress, Fran Morfe, who also lives in Highlandtown, said, "I think our customers are taking this a lot harder than we are."
Mildred Zang, who has been shopping in the Highlandtown store for 65 years, said, "Oh, how you oohed and ahhed in here at Christmastime." Her family still operates a Grundy Street tavern.
"There will be no family draw. It'll ruin Highlandtown. It'll take away all the old people. They'll have no reason to come out," said Bruce Heiserman, owner of B. Allen Pawn Brokers, located in the same block as the five-and-dime. He will lose his favorite place for lunch.
The Highlandtown store's employee of longest tenure is Joan Hutson Adams, who came to work as part-time Christmas help 43 years ago.
"I quit school because I liked it so much here. I decorated windows, made Christmas decorations and tied ribbons on Easter baskets," Mrs. Adams said.
"Back then, we had wooden floors, ceiling fans and dark counters with all the merchandise separated by little glass partitions. Each counter had its own girl, and she had her own register. There was no self-service. We did everything for the customer."
Like some of the store's other 12 employees and many customers, Mrs. Adams doesn't drive. She has walked to work for 43 years.
The Highlandtown Woolworth's is one of the city's oldest. It opened Dec. 23, 1923. In the same block were branches of well-known retailers and restaurants -- a White Coffee Pot restaurant, a Baltimore Salvage hardware store, a Read's drug store and an S. S. Kresge five-and-dime store. These names have already disappeared from the Highlandtown business district.
Word of the store's closing reached Councilman John L. Cain of the 1st District early yesterday at City Hall.
"Woolworth's is an institution, a stabilizing force on The Avenue," said Mr. Cain, who represents the area. "And there's been no really big retailing draw there since Epstein's closed a few years ago. There are so many secondhand and dollar stores. But there are some hopes. I called a task force more than a year ago, and we are looking at long-range plans to reverse the setbacks."
Mary Ratajczak, who has worked at the store for 38 years and who lives in the 700 block of S. Decker Ave., said, "The Avenue has been going down for a while.
"We lost Irvin's a while back. Then Epstein's and Lee's. Nowadays, unless you want to eat, rent furniture or buy some dollar stuff, that's all you can do up here."
For regular customers, the closing seemed a heavy blow.
"I'm going to talk to the manager. Where am I going to get my lunch?" asked Mabel Easterling, who lives in the 400 block of N. Luzerne Ave.
Carroll Masson, a 65-year-old retired Domino Sugar worker, said, "I don't own a car. Most people who come in here arrive on a bus.
L "That's not my idea of shopping, to go to a mall," she said.
But other shoppers said they weren't surprised by Woolworth's decision to close some of its Baltimore stores.
Carolyn Andrews, a Northwood resident, said she rarely shops at the downtown Woolworth's although she works nearby. Yesterday evening, emerging from the store with a bag of tea and cookies, she said that prices are good for a few items but that she does much of her shopping elsewhere because "they have a bunch of junk in there."