A market for nostalgia

Elise T. Chisolm

August 20, 1991|By Elise T. Chisolm

IT LOOKS like a forgotten residence, a down-home pool hall or a neighborhood clinic. Lots of people go in and out, including kids, old-timers and yuppies.

For months I'd been looking out my daughter's window over rooftops, wondering what goes on at the corner of Grindall Street and Riverside Avenue, inside that plain one-story building with two windows and a corner door.

So one day I went in and found one of the most popular spots in Baltimore's historic Federal Hill area, as benign as a spring day at the harbor.

Indeed, it is a neighborhood 7-Eleven sort of place, but without the Super Big Gulp and packed full of everything you might want in an air raid. It is run by Benny Niroda, a true Baltimorean -- the kind who lovingly calls his city "Balmer" and goes "downy' ocean."

Benny is 58 going on 90, and can tell you all about the history of Baltimore and some of its future. He's one of 13 kids, which could be a reason he never married. The loquacious Benny has been managing his tiny store for 34 years.

The first day I ventured in, I asked him, "Hey, Benny, why no signs in the window? I didn't know what was in here."

"I don't need no signs, business is good, I have no recession."

Benny is handsome with brown strong eyes and graying hair.

The eclectic inventory of his store, from junk food to the staples that he crams to the ceiling, is mind-boggling. He carries snacks of all kinds, which attract the kids from nearby Southern High School.

But wait a second. Benny also carries bleach, soap powders, aspirin, Oodles of Noodles -- one of my favorites -- lipsticks, dog and cat food and lunch meats. There's a bottle or two of glue that seems to have congealed, nylon stockings and bread and milk.

On a top shelf you can find some Witch Hazel, an old-time astringent no longer a big seller.

If you linger, you might expect Benny to serve you a macaroni and cheese casserole.

I feel right at home in Benny's store, kind of like stepping back in time, to a simpler time. Now I buy my grandchild's diapers here and pick up a Classic Coke.

I ask Benny what it's like to see Federal Hill change from a working class/blue-collar neighborhood to a gentrified locale for white collars, yuppies with money, children and nannies.

''Well, I don't like the way things are now. Used to be people cleaned their front stoops and washed their windows. And there's more crime and the streets are dirty. I call some of the people who don't keep the outside nice 'Dirt Balls.' "

Have the yuppies helped his business?''

"Naw, them that's got money don't spend it here, but I don't care. I have had regular customers for years."

A young attractive girl comes in. She interrupts to say the yuppies have helped her business in the neighborhood, a commercial and housecleaning service.

"Business is great, and I come all the way from Silver Spring [Md.] to work here," she explains.

A young lawyer comes in for some pencils and meat loaf seasoning.

"I couldn't do without Ben's store. He makes life easier for all of us," she says.

Some teen-agers stop by for snacks. Benny allows only three kids in his store at a time.

"Get any more in here and they will get smart-alecky . . . I like kids, but they got to mind," the affable Benny says, while he records purchases on paper for a little elderly lady.

The woman is short of cash today, but says she'll come back when her Social Security check comes in.

Somehow I feel sad as I leave Benny's. Sad that there aren't more corner grocery stores and drug stores, once the backbone of neighborhoods.

But then there'd have to be more people who not only love to work a 15-hour day, but love their customers with the same zest as Benny Niroda.

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