What a long, strange trip it's been for sisters and best friends Anne Liner and Idy Harris, both of Pikesville, who opened The Bead in 1967 as a "hippie" store, the first in Baltimore to sell Nehru shirts and bellbottom jeans.
Forty-eight years later, Harris, 71, and Liner, 68, are retiring, effective Jan. 31, 2016. They have already emailed their customers that they will be closing the boutique clothing and accessories store that they started with $1,500 between them and grew into a business with sales of more than $1 million a year.
"Don't be sad," Liner told a downcast customer at the store in The Shops at Kenilworth mall Nov. 17.
That's easier said than done for longtime customers.
"I didn't know. It's just terrible," said former Barclay School Principal Gertrude Williams. "I used to go when they were in The Rotunda, every day from work."
"It's like a death," said Pam Goode, of Owings Mills, citing The Bead's unique merchandise. "I don't know where else we're going to go."
"When I got the news, my husband was on the phone with his father," said Goode's friend, Jody Millstone, also of Owings Mills. "I got the email and I screamed. He said, 'What's happening?' I said, 'The Bead is closing.'"
Millstone said she immediately called her sister-in-law and Goode to commiserate. "This is our go-to place," she said. "This store has stuff you won't find at any of the major stores. It's just a special store."
Harris and Liner started The Bead after the death of their father, Joseph Bashoff, a shoe salesman, of a heart attack at age 59. He had no savings, and his wife, Belle, a bookkeeper, and daughters each had $500 to their names.
At the time, Liner, was in her late teens, making and selling jewelry in a vacant storefront at 209 Read Street in downtown Baltimore, to put herself through Baltimore Junior College (now Community College of Baltimore County). Harris was barely in her 20s, doing secretarial work at Friendship Airport, a precursor to Baltimore-Washington International.
Liner had no intention of opening a retail store, until people began walking in off the street and buying her jewelry. The family pooled its money, with Bashoff giving her daughters her $500, and The Bead opened its door — a door that was designed to look like a coffin.
"We don't know why," Harris said, shrugging.
"Who remembers?" said Liner.
They decided to sell clothes as well as jewelry, so they all went to New York City and bought six Nehru shirts and six pair of bellbottom jeans, which was all they could afford. They sold out of everything at their new store and went back to New York to buy more clothes with the money they'd made.
They had natural business acumen, but no business experience, other than what wisdom their father had imparted..
"There was no business model or bank telling us what to do," Liner said.
"I think it was just in us," Harris said.
Robbed and shot at
After two years, they moved from Read Street to Park Avenue and Mulberry Street, and by 1972, they were operating four separate stores, including an accessories store, a head shop and a men's store. Liner designed snakeskin and platform shoes, and they also sold ruffled shirts.
"We sold men's clothes to men and women," Harris recalled.
In the days before malls and Harborplace, the main store was so popular that people came by bus to gather there. But independent stores began to fade away, and crime came to live in the area. The family was robbed and even shot at, and Belle Bashoff was taken to jail in handcuffs on a charge of defacing the American flag by hanging it in the store window as a "peace flag."
The family had no lawyer, only an accountant, who bailed Bashoff, then 57, out of jail.
Bashoff worked for The Bead until her death in 2001 at age 87. "She came every day, in a wheelchair at the end," Harris said. Harris and Liner still have the peace flag, which hangs in the store, near the front door.
By the late 1970s, The Bead had moved north — "It was time to go," Harris said — this time to The Rotunda, whose management recruited them to the mall. And there they stayed for the next 30 years, selling everything from big, clunky clothing to fanciful wall clocks and jewelry (but not by Liner, who had long since stopped making jewelry).
In 2004, New Jersey-based Hekemian & Co. purchased The Rotunda and announced plans to redevelop the aging mall, a prospect that didn't suit the sisters, and spurred them to relocate to Kenilworth Mall, now The Shops at Kenilworth, where they had their nails done. At Kenilworth, Harris' daughter, Julie, has helped modernize The Bead's merchandise and gave the store a presence on Facebook and other social media.
But now, Kenilworth, also an aging neighborhood mall, has a new owner, Greenberg Gibbons, which is planning a two-year, $20 million renovation aimed at giving the mall a more contemporary look.
"We couldn't face another redevelopment," Harris said.
And, said Liner, it's becoming increasingly difficult to pay rent and "decent wages" to The Bead's 12 full-and-part-time employees, some of whom have worked there for 30 years or more.
Again, it's time to go — this time into retirement.
"It's really hard to keep a single brick-and-mortar store going today," Liner said. "We worked for 48 years. We would have liked to have made 50, but the time was right."
Topic of conversation
For now, the store is bustling as usual.
"We still have new things coming in every day," Harris said. "The UPS guy came today and brought 15 boxes (of merchandise). He said, 'I thought you were going out of business.'"
"We're still going full tilt," said Liner. "I was in New York yesterday."
But the end is near. Already, the sisters are discounting merchandise by 10 percent — and 20 percent with purchases of $250 or more.
And a common theme is heard these days as customers try to convince them not to close.
"I've had protesters with signs, people crying," Liner said. "It was a big deal to us that we were closing, but I never imagined it would become such a topic of conversation."
"We spend the whole day telling people we're sorry," Harris said.
Longtime customer Lois Kramer, of Roland Park, was shocked when Liner told her, "We're retiring."
"Why?" Kramer said, her voice rising. "There's no such word. What are you going to do? You'll be bored."
But that's to be expected when you're as close with your customers as Liner and Harris are.
"We specialized in customer service and bonding with our customers," Liner said. "We treated everybody as if they were our friends."
Harris and Liner won't say goodbye forever. They're keeping their mailing list.
Said Liner, "You never know what we'll have planned for the next 50 years."