Epstein's to close all 7 of its stores Bad economic, retail conditions are blamed

January 18, 1991|By Michelle Singletary | Michelle Singletary,Evening Sun Staff Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.

Epstein's, a Baltimore retail institution and Maryland's oldest locally based and family-owned general department store, plans to close all its locations.

"Due to adverse economic conditions in general and a poor retail environment in particular, we made the hard decision to close," said Scott Yurow, vice president of L. Epstein and Sons Inc., which operates Epstein's.

Yurow said the company currently employs about 250 people. Seven Epstein's stores remain open.

Yurow said management made the decision within the last week to liquidate the stores.

"We will start a going-out-of-business sale shortly," Yurow said yesterday from the chain's Eastern Avenue headquarters.

Arnold Schaftel, Epstein's president, could not be reached for comment.

Epstein's, founded in 1926, came into its own after World War II, when it began to advertise heavily.

For many years, the company used the motto: "Be wise, economize, at Epstein's."

In 1988, when Epstein's opened its 11th store, in Dundalk, it had stores in three counties and more than 500,000 square feet of retail space.

In the last two years, the company has closed its stores on Light Street, Gay Street and in the Westminster Shopping Center.

In December, Epstein's closed its Joppatowne store, which employed 30 people. Several of the employees had worked at the store at 1036 Joppa Farm Road since it opened at that location 21 years ago.

The stores that remain open are at 3818 Eastern Ave., which is also the company's headquarters; 1403 Merritt Blvd., 6510 Baltimore National Pike; 5620 The Alameda; 6812 Reisterstown Road; 201 W. Lexington St.; and in the Glen Burnie Mall.

"I'm shocked," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association. "There was nothing to lead me to believe they were having trouble. I'm really surprised."

In fact, Saquella said, low-priced, discount stores such as Epstein's are the ones that analysts predict should be able to remain strong in this poor retail climate.

"People were saying they were the type of stores that would weather this economic storm," Saquella said. "They were a pretty much a no-frills operation. They had stable locations. They were in areas with good rents. It's not like they were located in Owings Mills."

An official of a downtown retailers' group expressed disappointment.

"I'm not happy to see any retailer closing," said Bill Glazer, owner of Gage Menswear on West Baltimore Street and president of the Market Center Merchant's Association. "I hate to see them close."

"It's depressing," said Robert Tennenbaum, vice president for the Center City Inner Harbor Development Corp.

Epstein's closing comes several months after the city was able to lure Morton's, a Washington-based discount clothing chain, to the ailing Howard Street district that was once the heart of a bustling retail center in the city.

But Tennenbaum said Morton's wasn't a threat to its neighbor.

"When the city was trying to help land Morton's, Schaftel said he'd love it," Tennenbaum said. "He said Morton's would be healthy competition. He was enthusiastic."

Epstein's was founded by Russian immigrant brothers, Sidney and Samuel Epstein.

The first store, which was just 13 by 80 feet long, was opened at 500 N. Gay St.

Epstein's located near two thriving city markets in Oldtown (Gay Street) and South Baltimore (a Light Street store across from the Cross Street Market) as well as on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown.

When the stores began to become profitable, the brothers brought their father, Louis Epstein, into the business. Louis Epstein was active in the management of the business until his death in 1943. In 1946, the Epstein brothers incorporated the business and named it L. Epstein and Sons.

The stores' interiors were never stylish, but there was always plenty of sales help and supervisors on the selling floors. Merchandise was displayed on tables with large white cards with prices silk-screened in brilliant red letters.

Epstein's never had fancy displays, perfumed air or plush carpeting. Shoppers stood on unadorned linoleum and selected merchandise under bright florescent lights.

The stores appealed to traditional customers, who patronized well-stocked domestics and housewares departments. Epstein's carried odd-sized curtains and window shades after its competition dropped these lines.

Epstein's retained the feel of a neighborhood department store where clerks knew the customers and service was offered and expected.

The store often advertised its selling philosophy: "Basic merchandise at the lowest price to the budget-minded customer."

Samuel Epstein's son, Norman, and Schaftel bought out family members in 1983 and began expanding the chain.

In 1983, Epstein's opened its eighth store, in Glen Burnie Mall. In 1985 two more stores were opened, one in the Westminster Shopping Center and one downtown.

The downtown store, Epstein's "flagship' location, is located in the old Brager-Gutman building near Lexington Market. It became the largest store with five levels and 95,000 square feet.

Six years ago, Schaftel said he had grand plans for the chain. In a 1985 Evening Sun article, Schaftel talked about opening stores in southern Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., as well as buying a chain of six to 10 stores.

"We're confident," he said. "You know why we're so confident? Because we believe in ourselves."

The closing of Epstein's ends a retail legacy that began with two young brothers with an American dream.

Interviewed in their Eastern Avenue office in 1949, Samuel Epstein said:

"We had $1,500 between us. We had saved that working as clerks in other people's stores. I was 26 and Sidney was 22. We decided we would take a big gamble with every penny we possessed. And, as it turned out, it took almost our last penny to open up."

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