Carl Morstein dies at 80 owned hardware chain

December 18, 1991|By Douglas Birch

For Carl Morstein, a quiet hardware store magnate who died Dec. 14 at the age of 80, friendship was a long-term investment.

"He was just meticulous, detailed, steady, not risk-taking, extremely honest in his dealing with people," said his son, Jay Morstein. "And he found he succeeded that way."

Mr. Morstein, a Pikesville resident who succumbed to a stroke he suffered earlier this year, forged an unusual partnership with Howard E. Butz when they were both stock clerks at the old Baltimore Salvage Co. in the 1920s.

The pair worked their way up together, sharing in the management and ultimately the ownership of the firm, which they transformed from a military surplus outlet on West Pratt Street into a Baltimore-area chain of stores called Hardware Fair.

In 1963, the friends became partners, buying the firm from the family that owned it.

Mr. Butz and Mr. Morstein decided they needed corporate titles, so they tossed a coin. Mr. Butz became president, Mr. Morstein vice president.

Little else changed. They continued to have lunch together every day and to sit at adjoining desks in the same office.

"It was like the yin and the yang, they complemented each other beautifully," said Jay Morstein, a Baltimore lawyer.

These cautious entrepreneurs avoided borrowing money, kept their stores small and drilled employees on offering personal service, according to newspaper reports.

By 1982, when they sold their business to American Shelter Industries of Jacksonville, Fla., Hardware Fair had 10 outlets from Glen Burnie to Bel Air and was competing successfully with retailing giants such as Hechinger and Channel. They sold their $12-million-a-year business, which had 150 employees, for an undisclosed amount of cash.

By March 1985, American Shelter Industries had reorganized under federal bankruptcy laws and announced it was closing all of Hardware Fair's stores and its central warehouse.

While Mr. Butz described himself as "impulsive" in a 1975 newspaper article, he called his partner "a sobering force."

"We are probably too conservative, but we don't have any debt," Mr. Morstein told a reporter. "There are many times that we don't owe the bank a nickel. You may grow a little slower, but you're on good, solid ground."

After retirement, Mr. Morstein and Mr. Butz both remained in the Baltimore area and kept in touch. "They loved each other," Jay Morstein said. Mr. Butz was an honorary pallbearer at his former partner's funeral Monday.

Mr. Morstein's business partnership was just one of the "amazingly strong relationships" he forged, his son said. The hardware executive and his wife, Lillian, had spent almost every Saturday night with four other couples -- the Abramowitzes, the Beitlers, the Siffs and the Dreyers -- for more than 50 years. The couples would have dinner at each other's homes, or go to the movies, or to the theater together.

Besides his wife and son, Mr. Morstein is survived by his daughter, Barbara Dee Noonberg, a school psychologist; a sister, Eunice Rubin of Florida; and five grandchildren. Services were held Monday at Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral establishment, 6010 Reisterstown Road.

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