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Baltimore's heyday of department stores

Let's go shopping!

Michael J. Lisicky, a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra oboist and noted chronicler of departed East Coast department stores, had a local hit three years ago with his book, "Hutzler's: Where Baltimore Shops."

Now he is taking us on another nostalgic shopping tour to several of the city's sorely missed stores with the recent publication of his "Baltimore's Bygone Department Stores: Many Happy Returns."

He takes us back to that now-vanished and magical world of perfumed department stores with their tinkling, chiming, paging bells, and elegantly dressed and convivial floorwalkers and sales associates who were willing to help customers find what they were looking for.

Lisicky generates memories here of goods beautifully displayed, the slight whooshing sound that the pneumatic tube made as it whisked a charge to the business office for approval and of stores gaily decorated not only for holidays but for various seasons.

The stores also offered a selection of restaurants for every pocketbook and appetite, places in which to rest and recharge before returning to the task of shopping.

In a chapter titled "Tea for Two," the author has reprinted recipes such as Hutzler's Crab Cakes, Burgundy Beef on Parmesan Noodles and even Terrapin a la Maryland. Indulge yourself in Judy's Ice Cream Hat, a childhood favorite of the Americian Visionary Art Museum's Rebecca Hoffberger, as well as Chicken a la King from Hochschild's Continental Room.

Hecht's, Stewart's and the Julius Gutman Co. are also included.

As national homogenization continues, with retailing being dominated by large retail chains, the days of a city being defined by such retail giants as Filene's and Jordan Marsh in Boston, John Wanamaker in Philadelphia, Thalhimers in Richmond, or New York City's Arnold Constable and B. Altman & Co., are long over.

There was no way Lisicky, who grew up in southern New Jersey and early on fell under the spell of Wanamaker's and Strawbridge & Clothier, where his mother worked, could write a book about Baltimore department stores and not revisit the still painfully missed Hutzler's, even though its doors closed for good 22 years ago.

He writes that the strengths of Hutzler's were due to its being family-owned and having generations of loyal employees.

"It reigned supreme as Baltimore's premier department store," he wrote, "in terms of sales and quality of merchandise."

But this time, he has expanded his repertoire to include Hochschild Kohn & Co. Lisicky wrote that if there was any department store in Baltimore that "gave Hutzler's a run for its money, it was Hochschild's."

Located at the corner of Howard and Lexington streets, ground zero for Baltimore shoppers, Hochschild's was founded in 1897. It was defined by its written policy, "Reliable goods only, at uniformly right prices," and years later by its memorable jingle, "When you buy, better try Hochschild Kohn ..."

The Hecht Co. was another department store that had its roots firmly in 19th-century Baltimore. It was a compilation of several different components.

"With its Hub clothing store, Hecht Brothers home furnishing store and value-oriented Hecht's Reliable Store, the Hecht Company offered the city of Baltimore a complete merchandise selection," wrote Lisicky.

The stores made their owner wealthy "by selling moderation to the masses while offering liberal credit terms," he wrote.

Directly across Howard Street facing Hutzler's was Stewart & Co., which roared onto the retail scene in 1902, billing itself as "Baltimore's Biggest, Best Store" featuring "high-grade merchandise at popular prices."

Lisicky observed that even though Stewart's was a "quiet store that carried quality merchandise, it suffered from somewhat of an inferiority complex (its leadership was in New York City, not Baltimore) and Baltimoreans suitably treated it as an outsider, who felt the store didn't quite get the city or knew the style and taste of what its customers wanted."

He pays homage to other stores that vanished years ago, such as Joel Gutman & Co. It was the city's first department store, opening in 1852, and was the first to close, in 1929, a victim of the Depression.

He recalls the fabled O'Neill's — known for its Irish linens and sales associates who were known as Miss Rose, Miss Lilly or Miss Katie — which rang up its last sale in 1954.

While it was not a department store, Lisicky recalls another staple of the shopping district, the Read Drug & Chemical Co. drugstore — known for its snappy slogan, "Run Right to Read's."

Gone are those days, Lisicky reminds us.

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