Shop owners tied to artifact from Haussner's; Auction: The ball of string passes to the owners of Antique Man in Fells Point, who paid $10 a pound for the piece of Baltimore history.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The great big $8,250 ball of Haussner's string has become the instant cornerstone of the Antique Man's collection of weird and wonderful oddities -- "because it is, in fact, Baltimore."

"I think that ball of string is as important as Cal Ripken's consecutive game streak or any baseball he hit to break any record -- to Baltimore," says Robert Gerber, who bid $7,500, and paid a $750 buyer's fee, for Haussner's string ball at auction Saturday.

"It cost us $10 a pound," says Gerber's partner, Robert Jansen. "It weighs 825 pounds."

The Antique Man is, in fact, Jansen, Gerber and Gerber's wife, Debbie.

"I sort of think the big boys missed it," Gerber says. "That ball of string should be downtown in the Inner Harbor for 3 million tourists to see annually.

"It should be. But it's not. They have to come to the Antique Man to see it," he says. "Last night, we had 30 people standing in line looking at this ball, laughing, talking about it: 'Oh, I remember when I was just a little girl in Haussner's with the ball of string.'

"To me that's important," Gerber says.

"And the little kids out there: 'What's that, Mommy?' 'That came from Haussner's. They're not in business any more. But when we little girls they were building that ball.'

"That ball of string grew like their fortune," he says. "There's just so much to it." Yes, indeed, 337.5 miles of string, weighing 825 pounds, saved from 19,799,950 bundles of napkins, worth at today's rental costs, $779,623.03, much of it rolled personally by Francie Haussner George, whose parents started the Highlandtown restaurant.

The ball pretty much fills the old-fashioned storefront on one side of the entrance at 1735 Fleet St. in Fells Point. The other side is filled with religious artifacts, including statues of the Apostles, a recumbent Christ and several crucifixes.

"My biggest thing was I didn't want it to leave Baltimore," Gerber says. "I didn't want it to wind up in some sky-roof restaurant in Manhattan or some beachfront store in Waikiki. It needed to stay in Baltimore.

"If you go down to that trendy little restaurant in the Harbor, Planet Hollywood," he says, "this ball of string is as neat as anything in there."

These antique guys are somewhat sentimental about the preservation of Baltimore memorabilia. They own the big steel pig that used to hang over Joe Siemek's butcher shop, across from their second, "warehouse," location in the 1800 block of Fleet Street.

"That pig hung on that building 79 years," Gerber says. The pig was outlined in neon, and the sign said "Eat Joe's Meats."

"We bought that to keep it in the neighborhood," Gerber says. "I could have sold that pig 500 times since I bought it. I get phone calls to this day. But the pig is not for sale."

They don't want to see it wind up in a place like the defunct City Life Museums. They'd like to see it hang over a restaurant or store that might go into the old Siemek shop. They'd make a deal for that.

Bill Siemek, Joe's youngest son, and his wife, Dot, stop by to look at the ball of string and Bill makes an offer: "It's worth $50," he says.

The antique guys say no.

Bob Jansen found another slice of Baltimore nostalgia while rummaging around in a third-floor loft on the Gay Street Mall -- the marquee of the Elite moving picture theater.

"They were going to throw it away, and it was a silent movie theater back in the early 1900s," Jansen says. "We saved that, and we're hoping to have it restored. We hate to see history leave Baltimore."

The ball of string fell well inside the Antique Man's $100,000 advertising budget. And the Antique Man got enough name recognition Saturday to run for mayor or at least city council.

And of course there's a profit motive.

"We also have another maybe 300 pounds of string they never got around to putting on," Gerber says. "All tied, ready to go. We know there are a ton of people out there who are going to want a piece of this string.

"We're going to sell the Haussner string at $10 a foot and we're going to have a certificate of authenticity that'll go with it. This'll probably be in the spring before we get around to that. It'll make a great gift."

Not everybody thinks they made a good buy.

"Yesterday morning we had a guy on the answering machine said: 'Hey, Bob, I know you bought the ball of string. I want to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.' And then hung up."

And they'll "entertain" offers from people who want to buy it.

The Antique Man shop opened on Fleet Street about 16 years ago when the Gerbers bought the building and Jansen helped them renovate it. But they've been serious collectors maybe 30 years.

"We like odd and unusual stuff," Gerber says. "Probably before most people have seen how important and how neat it was."

Their premier early acquisition was a 12-foot, two-headed, giant mummy named Kap Daw.

"He's been around. He's been in sideshows and carnies from the turn of the century," Gerber says.

They bought Kap Daw, a 19-foot stuffed blue marlin and five great white sharks from an old carnival guy in Glen Burnie. They turned down a strong offer for Kap Daw from a trendy new cafe that wanted to incorporate him into an intimate little bar you could drink off.

"It's kind of like trying to buy sentiment, I guess," Gerber says.

He's 56 and a retired Baltimore county school bus mechanic; Jansen, 54, is a former city policeman who worked in homicide and the Northeast District. Jansen broadcasts the Radio Flea Market every Sunday morning on WCBM.

"It's a wacky show," Gerber says.

Jansen picked up their King Syrup lion when he was on patrol in the Northeast. He stopped in an antique shop on Harford Road. He paid $700 for the lion and put him in the back seat of his radio car.

"People thought I was a K-9 officer: 'Look at that big dog in the car!!'"

The lion crouches now atop a show case in their shop.

"They used him in trade shows," he says. "He's got eight actions. When you plug him in, his tail wags, his eyes light up, his head moves, he roars, his mouth opens and shuts."

They've had some misses, too.

"I would have loved to have the RKO Dog," Jansen says. That's "Nipper," the famous Baltimore signifier now at the Maryland Historical Society.

"We snoozed on that one. We'd have loved to have that on our roof. It would have been great for Fells Point, too."

"We're game," Gerber says. "If it's out there for sale, we're definitely gonna try to buy it."

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