"Can I help you, hon?"
It's one of the signature lines Jerry Silverman tosses at customers as he zooms through his children's clothing store, gray hair askew, box cutter in pocket, tape measure around his neck.
The answer on a recent afternoon in downtown Baltimore was yes, indeed, they needed help. They needed to find a maroon skirt or green jumper or khaki pants or yellow shirts. They needed a boy's "husky" size, they needed a looser shirt, they needed to exchange sizes. They needed sturdy, plain, affordable school uniforms and on a hot afternoon several days before Baltimore public schools started, Jerry's Bargains on Lexington Street was the place to be for the back-to-school set.
"It's been crazy here," Silverman said, chuckling and wiping his lip with a handkerchief.
Many of the city's public schools require students to wear uniforms, so as the summer wanes, parents, grandparents, sullen teens and jumpy preschoolers make their annual pilgrimage to pick up two or five or 10 sets of the same boring outfit. Silverman turns his store over to uniforms after July 4, and on the busiest days at the end of summer, he hires a guard and locks the door to control the crowd. The line often creeps down the block.
Even kids will grudgingly admit that uniforms can make lives easier, and parents, almost without exception, love them. The homogeneity means their children won't be teased for wearing hand-me-downs and won't suffer the same fate as the kid one mom knew, back in the day, who had to strip down at school when another student demanded his expensive jeans. Uniforms are cheap and delightfully uncomplicated, parents say.
"You get a set thing to wear, and that's it. You don't have to worry about the latest in fashion. No. Everyone wears the same thing," said Myesha Tabron, a hanger under her chin. She was buying three outfits each for six family members, she said as she surveyed her 10-year old. "This must be cut small," she murmured, "She may need a 20."
Over by the skirts, Donita Hickman was as busy as an air traffic controller. She had a baby on her hip and was looking for clothes for five children. She buys them five outfits each so she only has to do the wash once a week, she said. She'll come back to replenish when the weather is colder because "my babies keep growing."
"I think it's too small for you. Look at your chunky chunk," she said to one daughter, then turned to another. "Take it off, I don't want to spend too much time on the shorts. ... I already told you yes. ... You need to go to a bigger size."
Hickman has been coming to Jerry's since she was 7 and has utter faith in him. When she sent her daughter to the store on her own once, Jerry watched her like a hawk.
"I don't think your mom wants you to get these shirts," he told the youngster, which as it turns out, was absolutely right.
In the big-box era, Silverman's mom-and-pop operation is a refreshing throwback. He runs the show, his wife does the books and his daughter works there part time. His son, Robbie, whom customers insist on calling Little Jerry, is the manager.
Little has changed since Silverman, a 71-year-old Baltimore native, left his family's dry goods store to open his own shop 43 years ago. He uses a register that chachingchings, refuses to computerize and offers his customers old-fashioned courtesies. He kneels to measure little boys' waists, doesn't require a minimum payment on layaways and knows many shoppers by name. In quite a few cases, his regulars are the third or fourth generation of the same family.
Last week, as the crowd in his 3,300-square-foot, no frills, Tommy Hilfiger-free store swelled, Silverman energetically bustled around, responding to requests for size 6 shirts or burgundy pants. Occasionally, he would stop to hold a baby or gently give a kid a once-over before declaring that he needed a bigger size for "growing room."
"I always told my father that if he ran for mayor, he'd win. Because people like him and respect him, and he treats them well," Robbie Silverman said.
The elder Silverman keeps prices down by picking up shipments that the giant stores refused, buying manufacturer overruns and working out deals with longtime suppliers. After a low mark-up, that means most school pants, skirts, blazers, shorts and shirts cost between $4.99 and $14.99, and he offers a 5 percent discount on all school clothes for the month of August.
Silverman, who is Jewish, was offended by the comments civil rights activist Andrew Young recently made, accusing Jewish, Korean and Middle Eastern store owners of overcharging and ripping off customers in black communities. "We're inner-city, and we provide a service," he said. "We don't take advantage of our customers."
It was getting late, and the after-work crowd was pouring into the shop. A small boy waiting by the register sucked back tears; the phone rang and rang. Yes, they had plus-sizes. Yes, they would keep the store open for a customer who was stuck in Beltway traffic.
"Other stores, you can't find green or blue and any size," said Maxine Lynch, who was there with her daughter and two school-age grandchildren. "Look at Fat Boy here," she said, smacking her grandson's rump. "He can't get that butt into just anything."
As she held up some khaki boys pants - two for $30 - Lynch said there's a sweetness to this annual ritual. "It's deja vu to me," she said.
Silverman sometimes keeps his shop open late if customers linger, but business, at last, was slowing. The store quieted. Shoppers cleared out. The last customer departed, and Silverman stepped outside to pull down the shop's metal shutter. It rumbled shut, signaling the end of a long day.
Griselda Funn stood on the sidewalk holding yellow "I love Jerry's" bags. Funn, 50, shopped at Jerry's with her mother when she was a little girl, and now she is buying school clothes for her own grandchildren.
"I love this little store. It was always nice coming here," she said wistfully. "The way the world is now, you've got to hold on to the memories."