The alley rowhouses around the Conkling Salvage Exchange and Foam Center in Highlandtown are fitted with staircases so twisted and narrow that it's nearly impossible to drag a box spring and mattress to the bedrooms upstairs.
"So they've got to use foam," says store employee Adam Smith.
And so they come to the Salvage Exchange, where a big sign at the corner of Conkling Street and Claremont Avenue promises "Everything from Flypaper to Flying Machines."
Before getting to the piles of foam at the back of the store, customers navigate aisles of fake flowers -- 95 cents a bunch -- whose constant blooms wind up adorning local tombstones; plastic piggy banks fat enough for 10 times the coins it costs to take one home; spatulas and paint brushes and wooden sauce spoons; framed posters of tough guys and cowboys; socks for 69 cents a pair; and a carnival of bric-a-brac to decorate the parlor windows of East Baltimore's most whimsical grandmothers.
Years ago they sold bikes and wagons on the layaway plan, but those days are gone.
"It's always changing. Except for foam and flowers, we're not trying to sell anything forever," says Stanford Schneider, 69, whose life has been the store since he was old enough to sell three pairs of shoelaces for a nickel and mismatched socks -- better than no socks in Depression days -- for a dime.
Mixing up the inventory at a neighborhood store is the trick to moving truckloads of low-budget quirks like spatulas, Schneider confides. If folks see something on special one day, they pounce on it in the belief that it might be gone tomorrow. In this way, says Schneider, the Salvage Exchange grosses about $20,000 in sales a month, most of it from flowers and foam.
"My aunt and uncle [Sarah and Mike Lipman] started here in 1934, it used to be a bakery. They lived on the second floor where we store all the Christmas merchandise and took baths at my aunt's house on Chester Street because the store didn't have a tub," says Schneider, standing in shafts of sunshine pouring through the store's plate glass windows, remembering days when "families worked together and cried together."
"After they got married in 1918, they owned shoe stores and variety stores, ma-and-pa places. He'd open up in the morning while she cooked breakfast. When he came to the kitchen to eat, she'd mind the store."
The Lipmans worked their way up to a store at Lombard and Dean streets that sold furniture on time. They were doing well enough to take out a mortgage on the building when the Depression hit.
Schneider says that as his customers became destitute, Uncle Mike -- "a ham actor who wrote poetry and would sing you a song at the drop of a hat" -- forgave their debts, turned in the store's keys to the bank that held the mortgage and went to live with his in-laws on Chester Street.
By the summer of 1934, Mike Lipman propositioned the same bank that had financed the failed furniture store: Let me clean and repair the old bakery up for auction at Conkling and Claremont in exchange for six months free rent. If I can make a go of a business there, we'll talk about a lease. If not, you'll have a more attractive piece of property to auction off for your trouble.
Sixty-four years later -- with nary a flying machine having sailed in or out -- Mike Lipman's bright idea of selling "whatever came along" is still ringing up sales.
The neighborhood has changed -- graffiti and trash mar once spotless streets around Our Lady of Pompei Church, the old-school Italians who brought homemade lunch to shop owners have died, most of their kids moved to the suburbs and renters threaten to outnumber homeowners.
But the Salvage Exchange stays afloat on flowers and foam.
And Stan Schneider, a kid whose father died when he was 5 and came of age in a store run by an aunt and uncle who had no children, keeps the doors open.
'Liked the business'
"I had an opportunity to go to college, could have done anything I wanted, but I liked the business, I liked people and I liked this neighborhood," he says. "There's not too many places you can go and get foam cut the way you want. We sell it for boats and campers, recreational vehicle cushions and mattresses. Bring in your slipcovers and we'll measure and stuff them. I can't make it on the neighborhood trade alone anymore, but people come from all over to buy our foam."
About a decade ago, it appeared that Stan's son -- a clever, creative man named Jay who brought an elegant touch to the Salvage Exchange -- would take over the business and run it with Smith, who is the proprietor's longtime trusted right-hand man.
Jay Schneider died of AIDS in 1990 just shy of his 32nd birthday. Ever since, Stan and his wife, Sylvia, have volunteered at the Johns Hopkins AIDS center and give talks to young people and seniors about the disease.
"The plan was for me to retire and Jay would take over," said Schneider. "It didn't work out."
Now, Smith is poised to become the decision maker who puts out Nativity scenes for sale each December, Easter bunnies in spring, everyday glassware and as much foam as Baltimore can handle.
"Mr. Stanford will run it as long as he can keep on coming in here," says Smith. "I respect him, I'm loyal to him and I make a good living. And he says I don't need to know everything just yet."
Pub Date: 5/26/98