Old Town clothiers to close their doors Two mall merchants blame crime, disrepair


After more than 30 years, two of the oldest clothiers at East Baltimore's Old Town Mall are closing their shops this week, blaming city officials and inadequate policing for declining business.

"I've been waiting for years for the city to renovate the mall," said Lewis A. Goldstein, 61, owner of Goldstein's Style Shop, a women's clothing store and fixture in the area since 1918. "I can't wait any longer. I've been operating in the red for years and don't have the financial resources to stay afloat."

Plans to renovate the three-block shopping strip near Gay and Ensor streets have been in the works for more than three years. The proposed development project was stalled in June 1995 when merchants in the adjacent Belair Market opposed construction of a supermarket as part of the renovation. A small number of vendors, who sell fresh meats, vegetables, fast foods and other groceries, argued that the new supermarket would undercut their prices.

Although the merchants eventually dropped their objections, further delays occurred last December when Agnes B. Welch, a former city councilwoman, held up passage of the Old Town Mall urban renewal bill. It was finally passed on the last day of the City Council's 1995 legislative session.

The result: Construction won't be complete for at least 18 months.

Too long to wait, many merchants say.

"A third of the storefronts on the mall are vacant, and many more will be closing," said Seymour Farbman, 60, president of the Old Town Mall Merchants Association and owner of the Diplomat Shop, a 66-year-old men's clothing business that he took over in 1966.

Add his store to the list. Farbman will close the Diplomat on Saturday.

"I've had a 50 percent decline in business over the last five or six years," said Farbman, glancing at the few layaways waiting to be picked up. "I can no longer afford to subsidize the business with my personal savings."

Customers driven away

Merchants in the commercial district say they lost nearly half their customers when the former Lafayette Courts public housing high-rise was demolished last summer. And many once-loyal customers have stopped visiting the shopping strip. Purse snatchings, open-air drug peddling and loitering heroin addicts have driven customers to other malls.

"I don't come here as often as I used to because the area's gotten pretty bad recently," said Jerome Featherstone, a deputy sheriff in Howard County who started shopping at Old Town Mall about 15 years ago. "My car's been broken into three times. Each time, it was parked in the lot, right by the mall."

Old Town, now a pedestrian mall, was open to automobile traffic for many years. In the 1950s and 1960s, merchants fought to have Gay Street closed. Ironically, they were trying to prevent crime from the then-deteriorating neighborhood that surrounds the commercial district from hurting their shops.

Easier to loiter

The new design made it easier for people to loiter in the area without being seen from the street. Police foot patrols have not stopped the trend, merchants say.

"We've gotten a lot of lip service from the Police Department, but nothing's changed," said Farbman, as he surveyed the rundown shopping strip. "There's still a lot of vagrants loitering in the area, making people afraid to walk in the mall."

Pedestrians needed

Not true, said Maj. Wendell M. France, who took over command " of the Eastern District in August. He assigned two officers to patrol the mall during the day and says many of the people the merchants complain about live in the area.

"The problem at Old Town Mall is not crime," France said. "The problem is a lack of pedestrian traffic in the area."

Customers learning of Farbman's plans to close the Diplomat lament the loss, especially neighbors without cars.

His store offers items that most of the large chain stores don't -- such as First Down winter jackets, a popular item.

'My favorite store'

"I got my first suit here more than 20 years ago," said Gerald Jefferson, 42, who was doing some last-minute Christmas shopping at the Diplomat several days ago. "This is my favorite store. It offers better quality than most, and at affordable prices."

Farbman is now selling men's suits by famous-name designers, such as Perry Ellis and Nino Cerruti, for as little as $160 -- that's 60 percent off their regular retail price.

And he's not the only merchant at the mall who is slashing prices.

In an attempt to attract shoppers, Goldstein is offering some great bargains, such as African-print pant and skirt sets for as little as $30. They sell for twice that at the larger malls. "The best time to have a going-out-of-business sale is right around Christmas," said Goldstein, who followed a proud family tradition when he took over management of the store from his father 35 years ago.

He hopes to sell as much of his inventory as possible and then perhaps rent the building, which has been in his family for three generations.

End of the season

"Everything has its season," said Goldstein, whose business survived the riots of 1968 and a declining retail market in the 1980s.

"I've been through a couple of revolutions in fashion and seen a lot of changes throughout the years, but the problems we're facing now -- the lack of pedestrian traffic and renovations, along with the drug dealing and vagrants -- are problems I just can't fight anymore."

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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