Head for Strohmer's, a century at Pratt and Payson, to finish the task at hand YES,YOU CAN FIND IT HERE

Jacques Kelly

November 11, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Need a washboard? A clothesline and pins? A screen door spring?

Strohmer's Hardware Store stocks them all. Just look for the shop with the roll of linoleum propped up by the front window.

It was precisely 100 years ago this week that this southwest Baltimore institution moved to the corner of Pratt and Payson streets. In that century, people have shopped here with the assurance that somewhere the Strohmer family has the part, tool or paint needed to finish the job.

"We sell the things that when you go to Hechinger's, they say, 'What are you talking about?' " said 27-year-old Craig Strohmer, the fourth generation of his family to own and operate the store.

Generations of Westside families know that if Strohmer's doesn't carry the key blank or roll-up dark green window shade or shutter hinge, it probably isn't made. This is a real, old-fashioned hardware store, with a wooden floor, central aisle and dozens of cubbyhole storage bins. And, best of all, salesmen to listen to your need.

And it has been that way for decades. Some time in the fall of 1891, founder John Strohmer passed out small trade cards with a pretty color lithograph on one side of a girl feeding chickens. Printed on the reverse side was this announcement: "Notice! Will remove to our new and larger store northwest corner Pratt and Payson on or about Nov. 12, 1891."

Russ Strohmer, 65, is Craig's father and the third generation to stand behind the counter. He also doubles as the family historian.

His ancestors began with $100 in capital and a good sense of business. The founding Strohmer began by selling a full line of groceries as well as household items.

An old photo, taken before 1906, shows the flourishing establishment looking proud and prosperous. A wide awning extends over the sidewalk and around the corner. The employees are posed out front, forward of the big barrels of pickles and other flavorful wares that drew customers indoors.

"At Christmas, my grandfather could stack toys outside. Back then, you could put 20 pieces of merchandise outside in the morning and they'd be there at night," he said.

Strohmer's sold coffee, tea, flour and other groceries, but not fresh meats. Local butchers were in that field. "In those days, you took a certain field of merchandise and stuck with it," Russ Strohmer said.

In the immediate vicinity of Pratt and Payson were other thriving businesses, including Horn's Theatre, Cushner and Siegel's men's clothing shops, Fred Hoffman's meat market, Rothstein's New York Supermarket and Bassler's bakery.

"The part where we're located now (2002 W. Pratt) was once Strohmer's premium parlor. People bought their groceries and were given little coupons which they could redeem for plates, vases, baskets, pots and pans," he said.

But in the 1920s, chain grocery stores arrived and began cutting into sales. The family decided to change with the times and rented their valuable corner building to the old J.W. Crook grocery outfit, a Baltimore-owned chain. In a few years, it, too, fell to national competition and became an American Store also known as an Acme Market.

When the Strohmers eased out of the grocery business, they went into hardware and, at Christmas, sold toys. This was very much a Baltimore tradition. Hardware stores moved aside their paint racks and displayed the electric trains that ran around the Baltimore Christmas garden village.

"There was a time when a fellow sold the green moss from a wagon on the corner. It was 10 cents for four quarts," Russ Strohmer recalled. The green moss was actually the dyed

sawdust that by local custom gets sprinkled around the miniature Christmas garden to give the look of dark green grass.

While the store no longer carries electric trains, it does sell toys. .. And paint.

"You'd be surprised how much painting gets done the week before Christmas," Russ Strohmer said.

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