THE MOTTO of Milton Franklin's old job-lot store could be the motto of Cross Street and the expanding swath of yuppified South Baltimore that the real estate agents like to call Federal Hill: "A little bit of everything. Always something new."
Dusty-booted carpenters are at work on a new bar called MaGerk's - in South Baltimore, shouldn't that be spelled, "McGuirk's?" - which is going where Tio Loco's Cantina used to be, which was where Cross Street Annex used to be, which replaced an old bar called Lombardi's. Charlie the Lamp Man died a while ago, and so did Eddie the Chicken Man. There's a pizza shop on Cross Street where Charlie Temes used to rewire lamps, and just seven weeks ago a cool coffee house called Spoons opened where Eddie Heyman used to butcher and sell capons. Muhly's (bakery) is now Mother's (bar).
And don't get me started about all the other new or still-young bars and restaurants along South Charles Street - we'd be here all day, all night, and you'd have to carry me home.
Chain stores may be coming to the Cross Street area in the next five years, too.
"A little bit of everything, and always something new."
Exit now Milton Franklin.
For 35 of his 91 years, he's sold such a variety of goods out of his Cross Store, you'd be hard-pressed to name something he did not carry at one time or another. Yesterday, I found a Brinkman Q-Beam Fish Attractor - a battery-powered light an angler hangs from a boat for crappie fishing at night - mixed in with the pet supplies, toys, canned tomatoes and paper towels. Even as he prepares to close shop, "Pop" Franklin has a wide variety of cheaply priced items almost impossible to find under one roof - baby powder, a John LeCarre novel, plastic beer mugs from the 1998 Stanley Cup playoffs, a Melita coffee maker, Pac-Man car air-fresheners, Batman comic books, "Studs: The Relationship Game of the Nineties" and "Black-Love Nature Scents" incense sticks.
Pop might only have one of each item, but the variety is nonetheless dazzling.
He has things I haven't seen in years, perhaps recently uncovered as he prepares for his final two months of business at 25 E. Cross St.
He has a new Remington Noiseless typewriter. It was probably "new" when Truman was president.
Right next to it is a tablet of "air mail writing paper," thin, gauzy sheets of stationery people once used to keep their overseas letters light and affordable. I haven't seen the stuff since the days I had a pen pal in Devonshire, England, named Colin Bray. (If anyone out there knows Colin, kindly give him my regards.)
Once, in a pinch for a toy for my son, I stopped at Cross Store and found a battery-powered robot for $5. I bought a bird feeder there, plastic food-storage containers and place mats.
While I was in Cross Store yesterday, Pop Franklin answered the phone, and his side of the conversation went like this: "Oh, yeah. I got plenty of 'em. Ten cents apiece. Yup. You got a thousand relatives?"
When he hung up, I asked what the caller wanted.
Pop pointed to a box. "Wide-tooth combs," he said. "For people with long hair. I got a thousand of 'em."
An elderly woman came by with a shopping cart and, in a magnificent Bawlmer accent, asked about a painted ceramic figurine in Pop's front window.
"How much is that parrot?" she wanted to know.
"The what?" Pop asked back, stepping outside to see the object of the woman's desire.
"That parrot," the woman said again.
"Oh, the pirate!" says Pop, nodding toward the foot-tall Long John Silver. "Five-twenty-five."
After all these years in Baltimore, you'd think Pop had scaled the language barrier by now.
"I grew up near High and Front Street, that was near Little Italy," he says. "We had outside toilets. The honey wagon used to come around. You know what that is?"
"And people didn't have bathtubs, so they went to public baths. We lived on the second floor of a rowhouse, and near us was a firehouse with a steam pumper and four white horses. We were poor, but we never knew it. My dad worked at Baltimore Bargain House, a big wholesale house at Liberty and Baltimore. He used to stop at the five-and-dime on the way home from work and buy us kids a nickel's worth of candy."
The specialness of that - his dad handing him a treat - stuck with Milton Franklin.
"Whenever kids came in my store, I'd give them a little something - that was the best business builder," he says. "I had people come in here, and they brought their children, and now I have the grandchildren and even the great grandchildren. ... I love people."
His grandnephew, Marc Quint, says the yuppies won't miss Pop or his store.
"But," he says, "the homeless he has been keeping alive with a scratch-and-dent can of SpaghettiOs here and there, and, especially the senior citizens he's been extending credit to, to get them to the next check, sure will."
Cross Store will be transformed into a bakery-supply showroom, Pops says. In two months, he'll close up and move on. But he's not retiring. He'll find new goods and peddle them at a flea market near you. "I'm not going to sit in a rocking chair, dry up and blow away with the wind," he says. "And don't you ever do it, either!"
He says this as Cross Street seems to change before his eyes.
"Used to be all working-class families - families - around here," he says, waving toward Charles Street and south. "The yuppies moved in, the landlords increased the rents, and the families aren't there anymore. The yuppies don't come in" to his store.
It never was a yuppie kind of store.
"But, you know what?" Pop says. "I've noticed a new trend - the yuppies are having babies. Maybe I'm leaving too soon."