For a quarter-century, Luke Durant Jr. has been Santa Claus at Mondawmin Mall, every year for six weeks during the lead-up to Christmas Day. His white beard is real, his jolliness an intrinsic part of his nature.
Many of the people who placed their kids on his knee over the years also patronized his business a few feet away, a candy store called Somethin' Good, where popcorn, honey cashews, lollipops and candied apples sold in abundance. The store has been a fixture of the mall for 35 years - longer than Durant's been Santa.
But business is not remotely what it used to be, and Durant plans to close the Somethin' Good store at Mondawmin on New Year's Eve. Durant hopes he'll still be asked to be the mall's Santa for many Christmases to come, but the shop will be gone, a victim of competition from huge Target and Walmart stores nearby, a Dollar Store across the hall and even the drugstore next door. They all offer deals on candy and other goodies that he cannot match.
"It's not so much because of anything bad," said Durant, 62, his reflexive exuberance momentarily dampened. "It's just time to go. Tell everybody thank you."
Durant's voice was coming over a small two-way radio held by his niece, Tina Imperial-Trainor, the store's co-owner, who was standing behind the counter and who uses the device to speak with her uncle over by the 15-foot-tall Christmas tree in the mall's lobby. Durant knew his niece was chatting with a reporter and decided to break the news of the shop's imminent closure.
The reality of its demise was amply illustrated by a potential customer who walked in and surveyed the offerings. Pointing to a container of a so-called health mix - nuts, seeds and raisins - she turned to her companion and said, "Oh, I don't need any of that. I just bought a bag of it at Walmart." The two women walked out without buying anything.
"See what I mean?" asked Imperial-Trainor, whose eyes welled with tears as she described the long history of the business, begun by Durant's father, also named Luke, with a kiosk upstairs at Mondawmin. He and another son, Dexter, also set up an outpost of the business in the Inner Harbor "when it was still sludge," Imperial-Trainor said.
"They had people lining up as the harbor was being built," said Imperial-Trainor, who joined forces with Luke Durant Jr. to buy the business from his brother Dexter 15 years ago, after the men's father died. "In the heyday of the Inner Harbor, we had 20 people working, making everything - the candied apples, peanut brittle, flavored popcorn. It was a very exciting time."
But that business went south too, buffeted by the downturn that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a train derailment and fire earlier that year in the Howard Street tunnel.
"The lease at the Inner Harbor said you had to renovate every three years, and that cost $20,000 or more," Imperial-Trainor said. "Couldn't afford it."
There were other stores in the Lafayette Market and at Pennsylvania Station. Neither outpost exists any longer, the latter a direct victim of 9/11 and its aftermath, when the railroad's managers turned Somethin' Good's storefront into an Amtrak Police office.
The store at Mondawmin was the only one left.
"I bought this business with my credit cards, because nobody would give me a small-business loan," Imperial-Trainor said, looking around the store, a narrow space dominated by a large counter. "It's sad to let something go that you've had for so long. It's a part of you. I know we'll never do it in a mall again. They're made for big businesses, not small."
The departure of the candy store and its gregarious owner is "like losing a family member" among the brotherhood of merchants at Mondawmin, said Jermaine Haye, shoe manager at the next-door Rainbow Shops.
"It's been since I was a little kid I've been going in there, and he always greeted everyone with a smile," said Haye, 20. "And he always had the best candy, to me. It's too bad to see him go."
The mall's owner, General Growth Properties, tried to boost traffic two years ago with a $70 million renovation of the mall, which opened in 1956. Mondawmin became home to new anchor tenants, Shoppers Food & Pharmacy and the city's first Target store. But the construction itself kept some people away. "They had scaffolding all over us," Imperial-Trainor said. "We lost our shirts on that."
Mondawmin's Chicago-based parent was not doing much better. On April 16 this year, General Growth filed for the largest real-estate bankruptcy in U.S. history.
"They worked with us a little on the rent," Imperial-Trainor said of her landlords. "They asked us to give it time. They were hoping the renovations would draw more people in."
But the candy store's revenues continued to drop, even though Santa, around Christmastime, is as busy as ever. "He gets a lot of love, but people forget that we've got to pay the bills, too," said Imperial-Trainor, who was grateful that, in the days approaching the store's closing, the hubbub of Christmas serves as a distraction.
In the shadow of the elaborately dressed tree in the mall's main lobby, Durant in his Santa costume spends hours in an armchair, patiently imparting a few friendly words to each child.
"We stay until the last picture is taken. We really don't care, as long as they get to see Santa," Imperial-Trainor said. "Last Christmas Eve, the mall closed at 6, and we still had a line of people around the set until 8:30. The security guards had to let people out the door."
During a break in the line of children, Durant took stock of the store's coming closure. "Do I hate to leave Mondawmin? Yes. But I don't want to get to the end of my life and say, 'If only I had written that book, or that screenplay.' I have other things to do," he said. "The store will be gone, but Santa will be here till the day he dies. It's been a blessing for me to be Santa Claus. I wouldn't trade it for the world."
His followers, too, appreciate that Santa, at least, is a constant presence.
"I've seen the mall change, I've seen the community change, but Santa never changes," said Tamira Hall, a construction-site flagger who used to bring her son, now 27, to sit on Santa's knee and who the other day did the same with her 5-year-old grandson, Jameil. "I don't know where a lot of things are any more, but Santa's here."
The children were being photographed on Santa's lap by Keith Bailey, one of Durant's nephews, who printed the images and placed them in frames for the families. Bailey said he's planning ways to help the family business survive, perhaps as part of an outreach ministry he runs a few blocks away on North Avenue. "You can't do anything with the rents in this mall," he said. "But we'll keep selling candy. It'll be under another name, but at least we'll keep it going."
Baltimore Sun reporter Robert Little contributed to this article.