Laura Paul, two days past her due date with her first child, was standing in a freezing drizzle outside Ben's Furniture City near Golden Ring Mall Thursday. But the only thing cold about her was her anger.
"It makes you furious when you have a child on the way and you are ready to birth a baby and you have no crib and the room is empty," the 28-year-old Overlea woman fumed. "You feel swindled."
Ms. Paul, who put down a $450 cash deposit on a crib and other nursery furniture last November, was one of at least 50 Ben's customers who were left with no merchandise, no refunds and no information after owner Morris Lancer abruptly shut the business March 6, leaving no explanation except a sign in the window.
The exact number of people who lost deposits or prepayments at Ben's could not be determined, but the final figure could exceed 100, based on the number of complaints received by the state attorney general's office. Because Ben's specialized in children's furniture, many of those who lost their money were young couples expecting a baby.
Barbara Scherer and her husband searched as far away as Lancaster, Pa., for the right nursery furniture before deciding to buy it at Ben's in December. The Perry Hall couple, who are expecting their first child in three weeks, wrote a $700 check for a deposit on the furniture, and on Feb. 28, Mrs. Scherer returned and paid $200 for bedding. Now they're out $900, and Ms. Scherer says she's "mad as hell."
Jack Schammel of Bel Air prepaid $240 for a crib. On March 4, he was notified that the crib was at the store. When he went to pick it up three days later, the store was dark. Now his baby is 4 1/2 weeks old and still sleeping in a bassinet.
Customers attempting to call Ben's Furniture City have found all telephone lines disconnected -- both for the just-closed store on Yellow Brick Road in Rossville and for a Reisterstown Road store that shut its doors in December.
Mr. Schammel said he reached Mr. Lancer's wife by phone at home and was told she hadn't seen her husband since the store closed. Since then, the Lancers' phone has been switched to an unpublished number.
Dennis Frazier, credit manager at Simmons Furniture Co. in New London, Wis., said Ben's owes his company "in the neighborhood of $20,000" and that he had not been able to contact Mr. Lancer.
Mr. Lancer's lawyer, Ted Offit of Offit & Offit in Towson, said Ben's shut down only after Maryland National Bank pulled the plug on the ailing store's credit and exercised its lien on the inventory.
Mr. Offit said neither Ben's nor Mr. Lancer had filed for bankruptcy because the bank had left the company with no assets to protect. The lawyer declined to discuss Mr. Lancer's whereabouts, but he said his client callshim "from time to time" and that they were trying to work out Mr. Lancer's affairs with Maryland National.
"We're trying to do the best we can for all the customers," Mr. Offit said. But, he added, "the bank's controlling the shots."
Duncan W. Keir, senior counsel for Maryland National Bank, rejected any attempt to shift a retailer's obligations to the bank. "It is still the responsibility of the merchant to satisfy the claims of the merchant's customers," he said.
Mr. Keir suggested that any individual who had a claim against Ben's submit it to Maryland National in writing, along with supporting documentation.
Even though its demise was abrupt, Ben's was no fly-by-night outfit. The original store was founded 58 years ago, according to a former employee, and was purchased by Mr. Lancer 13 years ago.
Joe Crigger, president of the Crib & Cradle chain of infant furniture stores, said that "from what everyone said, Morris knew the business and was a hard worker."
Asking for large deposits on orders is standard in the business, he said, because manufacturers won't take merchandise back.
He said Crib & Cradle is contacting Ben's suppliers to try to help Ben's customers receive their merchandise at the lowest possible cost.
Ann Hammond, consumer affairs supervisor for the consumer protection division of the Maryland attorney general's office, said there had been no complaints against Ben's until its closing, though there have been many since.
She said it was unlikely that her office could obtain refunds for those who lost deposits, but she held out some hope that the state could help in getting some inventory that is in the pipeline to consumers. For others, she said, "we are attempting to secure the furniture for them at cost."
"There's no specific law that says you may not walk away without giving notice," Ms. Hammond said. The only time such a move would be illegal, she said, is when a business knows it is going to close or go bankrupt, yet continues to take deposits.
Regardless of legal obligations, Simmons Furniture's Mr. Frazier said, there is a "proper etiquette" of closing down a business that calls for the owner to file for bankruptcy and post a notice telling customers where to call for information.