Elihu Shaivitz and his son, Moses, knew an opportunity when they saw one. The Russian immigrant and his son used to take their horse-drawn cart, loaded with new beds, to the other immigrants arriving off the boats at the Baltimore harbor.
Moses took over the venture, and soon his business grew to the point that a retail and distribution center was needed.
The first M. Shaivitz furniture outlet opened in Moses' home at 816 S. Charles St. (The "M" was needed to distinguish the store from the one down the street, run by Moses' brother, Sam.)
That was 100 years ago. Yesterday, Moses Shaivitz's grandsons, Jules and Buddy, went about the sad business of closing the last of six stores in what was once one of Baltimore's most successful furniture chains.
Most of the 40,000-square-foot showroom at the company's Catonsville store, on Baltimore National Pike, is as attractively furnished and decorated as it ever was.
But here and there a few gaps are showing -- a partition with no wallpaper or paintings on it, some empty floor space where top-of-the-line Broyhill or La-z-Boy recliners used to sit.
One saleswoman, waiting for customers, said that she moved from Chicago to Baltimore in February to take the job at Shaivitz, partly because the bed she bought there 20 years ago "still looks like new."
There will be no court proceedings, no Chapter 11 filing, according to Jules Shaivitz, 62, the president and general manager.
"We are very serious about taking care of our suppliers and customers," said Bernard "Buddy" Shaivitz, 57, vice president of operations and Jules' cousin. All orders will be filled, no creditors will be left holding the bag, and the 33 employees left at the store will receive pensions and severance pay, he said.
Instead, "Shaivitz, the Furniture People," as the company has come to be known, will close its last store after a liquidation sale that will start soon. The two men don't know quite what they'll do after that, but they plan to lease or sell the buildings their family owns, in Catonsville and on Ritchie Highway in Arnold, where the second-to-last store closed in August.
The Shaivitz family is the latest casualty of a retail furniture market that has had little sympathy for small, locally run companies. The last decade has claimed such familiar Baltimore names as B. Bugatch, Fradkin Bros., Grand Rapids, Bagby, C. H. Lear (and its sister store, Fallon & Helen), Levenson & Klein and Tom Early's Pilgrim House. Mr. Early was answering the telephones yesterday at Shaivitz.
The two Shaivitz cousins were still looking for final answers but felt that they didn't need to look much further than the continuing recession. "The economy wasn't that cooperative," Jules Shaivitz said mildly.
To be sure, the recession was a factor, and the last recession in the early 1980s claimed about half of those familiar Baltimore names, area retailers and analysts said. Budd Bugatch, now director of institutional research at Ferris, Baker Watts in Baltimore, closed his nine-store chain in 1983.
"The industry unfortunately feels [recessions] very directly," Mr. Bugatch said. That's because "the purchase of furniture is a highly deferrable purchase."
And home sales have remained low through this year. For the first seven months of the year, home sales across the nation were 23 percent lower than last year.
Jules and Buddy Shaivitz also blame the out-of-state manufacturers in Virginia and particularly North Carolina. Because of lax enforcement in Maryland, many customers are able to have furniture shipped here without paying sales taxes, they said.
But some people wonder whether the days of the large, high-overhead furniture showroom are over. Levitz, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based chain, has three stores in the area, but it stands virtually alone among showroom furniture chains in Baltimore. IKEA offers a much lower-priced of selection of unassembled Scandinavian furnishings out of its store in White Marsh.
With "baby boomers" now beyond their initial homebuying and furnishing stage, most of their purchases are for home furnishings and accessories, rather than the bread and potatoes wood-based furniture that Shaivitz sells.
One recent survey of buying habits showed that per-household, inflation-adjusted sales of furniture declined from 1984 to 1989, while sales of furnishings stores increased 6.4 percent a year.
Shaivitz started to move toward home furnishings, but not soon enough, Jules Shaivitz said. The sales volume simply was not enough to sustain the 40,000- and 45,000-square-foot showrooms the company used to run in Arnold, Towson, Essex, Hamilton and South Baltimore.
And no longer do customers respond as well to catchy slogans, such as "Look for the clock in the middle of the block," the sign that differentiated Moses Shaivitz's store from that of his main competitor, brother Sam, 100 years ago.
Buddy Shaivitz wiped his glasses and rubbed his eyes yesterday.
"The end of an era," he said quietly.