Epstein's shutting its doors on a Baltimore tradition

Jacques Kelly

January 22, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The crowd at Epstein's department store in Highlandtown didn't believe the end had come.

Epstein's, the last of the family-owned and operated department stores in Baltimore, is going out of business. The store's closing was the talk of Eastern Avenue as customers picked over the final inventory on a gray January afternoon.

How many parochial school boys' white shirts, blue pants and navy ties came from Epstein's? Ditto wastepaper baskets, cotton-and-poly housecoats and pacifiers known as "binkies?" Is there a kitchen curtain in Canton not supported by an Epstein's rod?

The day was not easy for Arnold Schaftel, the store's president, who has been with the company for more than 40 years. He recalled the human torrent that swept through the portals of his Light Street store the day it opened in March 1953. A year ago, he was forced to close that store.

"We're losing our livelihood. We just can't afford to stay in it," said Schaftel, who noted that all of the area Epstein's stores will be closed by the end of February. Schaftel sat in his office filled with pictures of his family, his father-in-law and the other Epstein family members who founded the business in 1926.

Louis Schaftel, his son, sat across the room. His eyes were glassy and red. It must be the dust, he explained, from cleaning out the things in his office.

Larger nationally based discounters, with more inventory and a lot less personality, doomed Epstein's, which was unswerving in its customer service and particular way of doing business.

In the store's glory days, a big ad in the old Sunday News American would generate a phalanx of women waiting to get in the front door come Monday morning. "In those days, ladies didn't work. They shopped on Mondays. It was a very strong day," Arnold Schaftel recalled.

Budget-minded customers swore by the store. There were certain items that Epstein's seemed to have cornered. One was the all-purpose ladies housecoat, which, because it had metal snaps, was known as a snap coat. The store also sold loose-fitting muu-muus, popular in many a Baltimore zip code. So, too, with city public school uniforms. Epstein's outsold all its competitors. But that wasn't enough.

If the store was synonymous with plain goods at fair prices, it also was known for its sales force, mainly women who lived in the identical neighborhoods as the traditional Epstein's customer -- in Oldtown, South Baltimore or Highlandtown.

In later years, came Epstein's in Northwood, Fallstaff, Joppatowne, Lexington Mall, Route 40 West, Dundalk and Glen Burnie. It grew with Baltimore. And each store was as trim as a Streeper Street kitchen.

While other stores had become dependent on self-service, Epstein's did not. The goods were displayed on old-fashioned tables, with a large sign announcing the price. Customers used to shopping one way all their lives knew their habits would not be challenged here.

The sales women folded shirts and wash cloths, cut yard goods and arranged button cards. They swept aisles and ran elevators. They were willing to work.

"If I asked them to work for the next four weeks for nothing, they would work for nothing," Schaftel said of his employees' loyalty.

The store was never ashamed of the blue-collar working customer. Until the end, 90 percent of its sales were cash only. Only 10 percent charged on plastic. The store's customers were people who were not afraid to be attached to the adjective "humble."

I used to say that if you wanted to understand Baltimore, examine Epstein's shoppers. But now that the going-out-of-business ads are appearing, it makes me wonder, where has that Baltimore gone?

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