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STORE 'MORE LIKE A MINISTRY'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Shoppers at a thrift store in Lochearn are likely to leave with bags full of bargains and bits of wisdom from the 90-year-old owner.

Belle Kline has run a consignment store for half her life and has been dispensing advice for nearly all of it. Helping a customer find just the right item and easing their cares are reasons enough to keep the doors open at Belle's Antiques and Apparel on Liberty Road.

"It is more like a ministry to me by this time," Kline said. "I love to work. It keeps the brain alive and I don't want to give it up. And I think I change people. They often sit here and tell me their problems. I tell them, 'Fix yourself up!' and then, I help them do it."

The sagging economy is taking a toll, even on the used-goods business. Consignments are down, rent is up and Kline is dipping into her own meager savings. She has no intention of retiring, but, for the first time in a long, successful sales career, she needs help and has found it in two Howard County congregations, one of which includes her.

Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation and Oak Ridge Community Church have paid her $750 rent for the past few months and are organizing efforts to refurbish the shop. Members are also putting together a 21st-century marketing plan, even though the owner eschews electronics and maintains all her accounts in her own handwriting.

"This wonderful woman has a heart to help people. We plan to help her keep this business going because, even at 90, that is what she wants," said her pastor, Rabbi Barry Rubin. "She performs an important function in that neighborhood. I think she helps more people there than I do in my congregation."

Members of Rubin's congregation, who share an interfaith center in Clarksville with the Oak Ridge church, have offered to paint, build shelves and spread the word about Kline's shop.

"In my congregation, she is the matriarch who brings blessings to others," Rubin said. "She has done amazing things to help her community."

Kline arrives six days a week, stylishly dressed, coiffed and accessorized, and works, surrounded by copious clutter, from a large desk at the front door. She can easily recall what's in stock and where it is.

She and a local minister, who needed shoes to send to a mission in Africa, combed through her stock and found 77 acceptable pairs for which he paid $77. She helped a young woman, excited about a job interview, put together a stylish ensemble on a meager budget.

"I know I can see who is hurting and try to help them," she said. "If they learn something from me, it is to have a heart."

Belle Feldman Kline, who grew up near Druid Hill Park and graduated from Western High School, was working as a secretary nearly 50 years ago when a lease became available at a small shop in Liberty Heights. Her initial investment - less than $100 for rent and a phone - launched one of Baltimore's first consignment shops, she said.

"Everything was so cheap that whoever came in bought something," she said. "Whatever people wanted we had: linens, dishes, furniture, appliances and clothes."

When she outgrew that space, she moved to the Liberty Road strip shopping center within view of the Baltimore Beltway and closer to her home.

"She knows the immediate world and they come in here to buy and resell," said Tom Frederick, a longtime customer and friend, who recalls how she gave his cashmere coat to a needy customer for $1. "There are some people who have been coming here for years. Belle finds something likable about everybody."

To which she replied, "What's not to like? I am good to everybody. I talk to everybody. I am their therapy. There is no negativity in my place."

Lisa Donovan, who met Kline through the congregations, said the store might be turned into a nonprofit outlet with the two supporting congregations gathering donations that Kline could dispense to the needy.

"She wheels and deals and really talks to people," Donovan said. "If she doesn't have it, she says, 'I'll get it for you.' She serves this community with a lot of love. People come to her for wise counsel as well as cheap, but nice clothing."

Kline said her immediate plans are to keep the store open in whatever capacity she can.

"My father lived to be 95 and he was still working," she said.

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