The pace is still unhurried at the Exchange, now 110

January 22, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

As downtown Baltimore's department stores and specialty shops have merged, gone bankrupt or disappeared, one oasis of unhurried shopping remains constant and unchanged -- the Woman's Industrial Exchange.

At the northeast corner of Charles and Pleasant streets, the Exchange quietly turned 110 years old this week. It shows no sign of quitting either.

A hand-lettered window card announced the anniversary. It sat alongside a January selection of handmade christening dresses. For the birthday, the Tea Room served an old-fashioned lunch of kidney stew and a dessert called floating island. As always, both were excellent.

It was on Jan. 20, 1882, that a group of Baltimore women formally incorporated a business to sell handmade articles sewn by women (always anonymous) who needed to make a little extra money. Many were Civil War widows. Others had a talent but needed a retail outlet.

By 1899, the group had funds to buy the current building, once a residential hotel called the Rudolph.

Today, the Exchange stands much as it did 90 years ago. The sunny sales room, facing Charles Street, is filled with Dresden-plate quilts and handmade rag dolls, paper-thin cookies and pineapple upside down cakes. The place resembles a permanent church bazaar. The ladies behind the glass cases and counters have worked on Charles Street since streetcars ran there.

The same permanence dominates the Tea Room, which bustles for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday. It's a chaste place, uncluttered by indirect lighting or fad foods. If your grandmother didn't make it, it's not on the Exchange's menu.

"It remains very plain here, just as it always was," said Rita Knox, the Exchange's manager and a veteran of the cash office of now departed O'Neill's department store, Charles and Lexington streets.

One of the sales clerks at the Exchange is Wilhelmina Godwin, a vigorous 82 years old. For 35 years, Miss Godwin worked at Minor's, a Charles Street restaurant and fancy foods store.

"I write to the performers at the Mechanic," she said. "I tell them welcome to Baltimore and may your stay here be very pleasant."

Her effort paid off. One of her letters to actress Colleen Dewhurst resulted in the purchase of more than $900 worth of quilts.

When Katharine Hepburn played Baltimore, she was a customer. Peggy Cass loved the place, too.

The popularity -- and profitability -- of the Tea Room keeps the whole operation solvent. Patrons would starve without cook Dorothea Day's omelets, buckwheat cakes, chicken salad, tomato aspic, meat loaf, crab cakes, kidney stew and chicken a la king.

The waitresses, who wear aprons and hairnets, are Baltimore institutions. Marguerite Schertle, at 91, is faster on her feet than a Metroliner. She's been at the exchange for a mere 46 years.

Working alongside her are two sisters, Carrie Geraghty and Loretta Tarbert. They worked together at the old Hochschild-Kohn tea room at Howard and Lexington streets.

"At Hochschild's, we never had stew on the menu," Mrs. Geraghty said. "It was considered undignified."

There is no cash register in the Exchange. Phyllis Sanders sits at a prim wooden table and makes change from a cash drawer.

Come 2:30 p.m., when the crowd has thinned and the day's butterscotch tarts are history, the waitresses count their checks and head for the buses that take them home.

"Where else in Baltimore could we have as great a job as this?" Mrs. Tarbert said.

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