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The pandemic disrupts back-to-school sales at an old-school retailer in Baltimore

At Jerry's Bargains on West Lexington Street in Baltimore, Robbie and Linda Silverman have been running the store their father established in 1963. The family plans to close the store, but it is still open during the pandemic for its annual sale of back-to-school uniforms. Sales have been off up to 40 percent, however.
At Jerry's Bargains on West Lexington Street in Baltimore, Robbie and Linda Silverman have been running the store their father established in 1963. The family plans to close the store, but it is still open during the pandemic for its annual sale of back-to-school uniforms. Sales have been off up to 40 percent, however. (Baltimore Sun staff)

In normal years, there would be a line of people down the main aisle and out the door at Jerry’s Bargains on West Lexington Street in downtown Baltimore: Parents and their children shopping inside or waiting on the sidewalk in the August heat to buy school uniforms during Maryland’s tax-free week.

But, in the midst of the worst public health crisis in a century, that’s not the picture at all. Robbie Silverman and his sister, Linda, who run the store for their 85-year-old dad, Jerry, are holding on through the coronavirus recession, but it’s tough. Kids won’t be going back to school right away, so uniform sales are off significantly, even with a 50% discount on all clothing and shoes. The store took a hit at Easter, too, with lots of unsold inventory because of the spring shutdown of retail stores.

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“Lacy socks,” Robbie Silverman says, and he points to a wall display of white, frilly socks for little girls. Normally, he says, the socks would have sold out during Holy Week.

Until recently, nearby Lexington Market was closed because of the pandemic, too, and that hurt foot traffic to the Silvermans’ store. “If you don’t have traffic, you don’t have dollars,” Robbie Silverman says.

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He could be quoting his dad, a longtime retailer who established the business in 1963 and ran it all these years through ups and downs. Jerry’s has been a shopping destination for hundreds of Baltimore parents trying to dress their kids on a tight budget. It’s old-school retail, with racks of clothing marked with hand-drawn signs. The Silvermans still offer layaway, know a lot of their customers by name and keep photographs of some of the kids they’ve outfitted taped to the front counter.

I’m visiting Jerry’s because the family plans to wind the business down, close it and sell the building. Jerry Silverman has health issues and does not run the shop day-to-day anymore. Even if he did, you wonder if he could survive the current crisis.

This is a moment of great uncertainty for the country, and unnecessarily so. Consider the ridiculous stalemate in Washington over extending relief to millions of Americans unemployed because of the virus. If the stalemate holds, with President Donald Trump declaring “no deal” with congressional Democrats, there are bound to be even more unemployment claims and, with it, less consumer spending.

A primary reason we did not see a major drop in spending in spring and early summer was the first round of help that Congress provided for the 30 million workers laid off or furloughed because of the coronavirus. They received $600 weekly on top of their state unemployment benefits, and that was good until the end of July.

Now Trump claims his executive orders, signed with a Sharpie last weekend, will extend the supplemental benefits. But, even if Trump can do that without congressional approval, the amount of each benefit he proposed, $300 weekly, will only be half what Congress authorized in the first round of relief.

A working paper just released by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the $600 that Congress provided to help replace lost earnings led to significantly more consumer spending.

Now, with millions of Americans still out of work, Trump and Senate Republicans want to offer a lot less. That makes no sense.

“Our estimates,” the NBER paper said, “suggest that, based on the latest data, eliminating the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) supplement would lead to a 44% decline in local spending. If the FPUC supplement is reduced to $200 … spending would fall by 28%. Even if the FPUC supplement is reduced to $400 … spending would fall by 12%.”

So, given where we are in terms of the virus — still active, still spreading, still killing Americans — it makes no sense to reduce unemployment benefits. But a lot about the government’s response to the virus has made little sense under Trump. The president who predicted the virus would disappear “like a miracle” claims that we will soon see “tremendous growth” in the economy.

Everyone hopes he’s right, but his claim is not based in reality.

The reality is in places like Jerry’s Bargains, where Robbie and Linda Silverman proudly maintain their father’s business. When Baltimore schools started requiring boys and girls to wear uniforms Jerry’s became a go-to shop for parents, especially during the week when they did not have to pay sales tax on clothing and shoes valued at under $100.

Not this year. Not this week. Not so far.

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Baltimore schools will start the new academic year with online classes, and while some parents decided to buy their kids uniforms anyway, many apparently have not.

“Back-to-school sales are off by, I’d say, 30% to 40% this year,” Robbie Silverman says. “Back-to-school time is usually our Christmas.”

And Easter was always a busy time for sales, too.

Now everything is being offered at half price, even the nice suede bucks resting on a shoe stand behind the front counter.

To people who have been going to Jerry’s for years, I say this: You might want to put on face masks and go there now and get your kids outfitted for when they eventually get back to the classroom. Just leave a little room for growth. And, if you can’t afford it right now, no worries: They still have layaway.

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