Castine Hardware falls on hard times, is closing

Jacques Kelly

July 08, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

It didn't take long for the word to spread up and down Broadway, across Fleet Street to Bond Street. Castine Hardware Co. was closing. The sign advertising a 50 percent discount was up.

"It never occurred to me we were famous," said Larry Castine as the phone constantly rang. The calls were from longtime customers, contractors and other hardware dealers who wanted buy his inventory.

Elderly ladies in summer cotton house dresses dropped in for light bulbs. Art students came for wire and extension cords. Other customers were just seeking bargains.

Castine's is one of those long-and-narrow neighborhood hardware stores with walls full of cubbyholes, little racks and drawers. If the place looked like the 1930s, it earned that guise. Norman Castine, the owner's father, founded the business about 1932.

"We were really a general store then. And this was a Polish immigrant neighborhood. People came in here and bought everything -- pots and pans, Christmas tree lights, toys, Lionel trains," said the son, 51. He said he decided to close the store because business was "hemorrhaging."

In the mid-1980s, he said, he was writing "25 or 30" charge account tickets a day from contractors who bought from him. When commercial construction dried up in the recession, his business dropped.

Castine learned the hardware trade from his father, who must have been a keen observer of the demographics that have transformed Southeast Baltimore. In the late 1950s, the elder Castine watched as the children of first generation Polish families moved to other parts of town and took their business with them.

Reluctant to get out of the neighborhood, the elder Castine built up a secondary trade with contractors large and small. One of his first breaks was to supply much of the hardware for the building of Reisterstown Road Plaza Shopping Center. Other large commercial jobs followed.

The son said that many longtime, walk-in customers never realized the dual nature of the store. Castine's was able to supply enough steel doors for a school and sell a single screwdriver to an amateur mechanic.

"Our big commercial accounts subsidized the person who just wants a small bag of nails," he said.

And because it was such an old store, customers came in search of hard-to-find hardware for shutters, old push-button electric switches and sash weights and chains for windows. Many times these items were not available.

"People would really rub it in. They say, 'Well, your father had it.' " said Castine.

He said that several local firms have offered him jobs. He plans to rent the three-story shop he owns in the 600 block of S. Broadway, across from the Broadway Market. "People come to Broadway for drinking and restaurants. They don't really come to shop," he said.

But there are still enough shoppers in the neighbors and longtime customers to make the closing of Castine's an event.

One was a Miss Dorothy, who decided not to give her last name. She said she'd been a Castine's customer since she was a

student at St. Patrick's parochial school.

"I thought maybe they would have a No. 3 galvanized wash tub to go with my wash board," she said.

"This was the place you came for everything. It was like Epstein's in Highlandtown. Epstein's is now closed, but I miss it. They had little things, notions, you know. Don't try going to a Ames or a K mart. They won't even know what you're talking about."

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