Venerable Hamburgers going out of business

July 07, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Hamburgers, the venerable retailing chain that has been clothing Baltimoreans since Millard Fillmore was president, has closed its warehouse and is going out of business.

There was no statement from Hamburgers, but an executive at the store's owner, TJFC Inc., confirmed yesterday that the 12-store chain is no longer ordering merchandise from its suppliers. Hamburgers, one of the city's oldest businesses, "will be phasing out of the business on or about Labor Day," he said.

About 150 employees will lose their jobs, said the executive, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to release news of the closing.

But no formal announcement was necessary. The emptiness of the company's vast warehouse in East Baltimore yesterday told the story. Barely a stitch of clothing remained.

Hamburgers' Frankford Avenue distribution center was open to the public as the company began selling off the accumulated detritus of almost a century and a half of doing business: mannequins seeking a new employer, Christmas decorations from more joyous seasons, even paper towels.

Battered desks were selling for $20, rotary-dial telephones for $5, and $10 could buy a filing cabinet that once held the vital records of a thriving business. One soon-to-be-jobless worker added a touch of humor: A naked mannequin couple shared an old-fashioned bathtub, on sale for $20.

Warehouse employees, who asked not to be identified, said similar sales of fixtures will take place at each of the stores as they close.

Hamburgers, which announced last week that it would close its flagship Charles Center store, is conducting a clearance at all of its stores. Employees said the distribution center shipped out the remainder of its merchandise last week.

The decision to close was not made in Baltimore. It was handed down from the New York headquarters of TJFC, which, in turn, is controlled by Germany's Hugo Boss AG.

The TJFC executive said Hugo Boss tried to find a buyer for Hamburgers for about eight months, without success. Hugo Boss, primarily a clothing manufacturer, is still seeking a buyer for its West Coast retail chain, Harris & Frank.

Hamburgers' shutdown marks the end of a 142-year-old presence in the commercial life of Baltimore. The business was launched in 1850, when Isaac Hamburger, a 25-year-old apprentice tailor, opened a shack on Harrison Street at the old Marsh Market, where the Fish Market now stands.

Hamburgers made and sold clothing until 1922, when it shut down production lines to concentrate on retailing. For 57 years, from 1906 to 1963, its flagship store stood at Baltimore and Hanover streets. But in 1963, that building was demolished and Hamburgers moved to Charles Center, where it occupies a distinctive building that bridges Fayette Street at Charles Street.

As if to mark its new prominence, the company added women's clothing that year. In the public mind, however, Hamburgers remained first and foremost a men's store.

Edward K. Hamburger, the 62-year-old great-grandson of Isaac Hamburger, recalled last month that Hamburgers served "the elite of the city" with a fanatic devotion to pleasing the customer.

"People would come in and make all kinds of crazy demands on us to fit the clothes to them," said Mr. Hamburger, who worked for the company from 1954 to 1969.

Mr. Hamburger remembered that the company's name would occasionally create confusion. Soon after the company first occupied its flagship store, some seamen on shore leave spotted the letters H-A-M-B-U-R-G-E-R-S spanning Fayette Street and came up looking for something to eat, he recalled.

For more than 117 years, the company was owned and operated by members of the Hamburger and Berney families, but in 1967 '' the cash-strapped chain was sold to Phillips-Van Heusen Corp.

LTC Phillips-Van Heusen ran the chain through its Joseph & Feiss division until 1987, then sold that unit to a management-led group, which then sold it to Hugo Boss in 1989.

But Hugo Boss, which had little retail experience, found running a clothing store chain to be rough going. Last year, the Hugo Boss Group's losses on its U.S. retail operations forced it to take $21.8 million in charges against 1991 earnings.

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