An elderly bearded man in a fur hat approached Harry Shapiro near the checkout counter at Shapiro's supermarket in Pikesville and shook his hand. Not a word was said, or was necessary.
Another customer, a woman who had shopped there since Shapiro's opened in 1964, said she hadn't intended to come this week because she didn't want to see the store in its last days. But she had to come, she said, "because a moth has got to go to the flame."
All around her, the shelves were emptying. Everything had to go -- 50 percent off. Shapiro's, a kosher supermarket serving the area around northwestern Baltimore, as well as customers who ordered from out of town and out of state, was going out of business.
Shapiro, who is 65, wants to retire. He expects to close before the week is out. He is selling the company name and some of its equipment to Seven Mile Market, a kosher supermarket that opened nearby in January 1989. The lease on Shapiro's 19,000 square feet of floor space at the busy corner of Old Court and Reisterstown roads will be taken over by Staples, a discount office supply store.
"Enough for me," said Shapiro. "I'm just tired. Get to be 65, it gets to be time to enjoy part of my life."
The reaction of customers and the clamor of local news media for interviews have taken him a little by surprise.
He spends a good part of his days saying goodbye to people. "They're very sad. Some have had tears. Some have given me kisses. I never realized we were so important to the community," he said. "This is a big family corner store. That's what they're going to miss."
Shapiro got into the business more than 35 years ago when he joined his father's supermarket in the Hilltop neighborhood of northwestern Baltimore. They weren't making much money at first. The supermarket made little direct appeal to the Jewishness of the area, he said. "They didn't want ham or pork."
So Shapiro turned the Hilltop supermarket kosher in 1958 and expanded the concept to two other supermarkets. After Shapiro closed family supermarkets at Hilltop and on Liberty Road in the mid-1980s, the store at Old Court and Reisterstown roads continued what had become a tradition. Since 1964, it has offered kosher meat, delicatessen items, fish, baked goods and frozen foods. "A lot of Jewish people don't keep kosher, but they like Jewish things," Shapiro said. Volume would triple for Passover.
None of this was obvious when Shapiro first took the business kosher. "To close up on Friday night and Saturday, that was a heck of a chance to take," said Rae Schreiner, who started working for the Shapiro family after school in 1950, when he was 11. Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, also is one of the biggest shopping days of the week.
There were compensations, however. When Maryland's blue laws were in force, Shapiro's used to be one of the few businesses allowed to open on Sunday, Shapiro said, because he had already closed one day for his Saturday Sabbath.
Although the northwest Baltimore area was already served by more than 50 kosher butchers when Shapiro started, he said, a kosher supermarket could offer lower prices and one-stop shopping for a range of other products. Now only a handful of kosher butchers still operate in the area. And, until Seven Mile Market opened, Shapiro felt he had little local competition. Whether there would be room for two kosher supermarkets in Pikesville is a question that Shapiro said had played no part in his decision to retire. Besides, he said, Pikesville has experienced an influx of Orthodox Jews over the last five years, and that has been good for business.
To accommodate them, Shapiro arranged for an additional kosher seal of approval on his food that would be recognized by the Orthodox. Since 1985, a rabbi has overseen the arrival and preparation of all Shapiro's kosher fare, making sure, for instance, that Shapiro's employees wash their hands between handling of meat and dairy products, in observance of dietary laws forbidding that the two should ever mix. At night, a kosher inspector locks the display cases against any possibility of tampering with what has been certified as kosher. Even Shapiro can't get into them then.
Earlier this week, the meat and deli cases had already been cleared by the sale. But customers kept coming to buy and to see the place for the last time.
At Shapiro's "they all knew you. When you don't feel good, they know. When you got something happy, they know," she said. "I tried another market this week instead of Shapiro's and I almost cried. It wasn't the same."