Hamburger's suited Baltimore's dignified tastes

Jacques Kelly

July 10, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

Even if you never shopped there, you probably got one of its ties or shirts as a gift.

To the end, the store remains solid, uncomplicated, never a discount arena. Over the years, it has possessed an old-fashioned Baltimore respectability. The place traded on the quality of its wares and never worried too much about high fashion and design.

If Hamburger's styles were a couple of years behind other designers, nobody fretted much.

Bob Pullen, a suit salesman at the flagship store at Charles and Fayette streets, came to work for the firm in 1951. He didn't expect to remain long, but he did. He's sold many a Hamburger's two-button suit, with just a tad of padding in the shoulders and cut the way Baltimoreans like their attire.

"It was middle of the line. The suits did not go toward the Brooks Brothers' Ivy league model nor did they go to high fashion. They were in-between. People bought strength and durability," said Mr. Pullen.

Isaac Hamburger founded the establishment in 1850. In 1905, his family erected an eight-story building at the northwest corner of Hanover and Baltimore streets, on which now sits part of the Omni Hotel.

Three floors housed retailing. The upper levels were devoted to the manufacture of men's clothing, an arrangement that lasted until 1922, when Hamburger's stopped making its own goods.

The three retailing floors were something of a local legend in menswear. On the first floor were shirts, shoes, hats and other furnishings; the second, sportswear and boy's; the third, suits and tuxedos.

There was a certain type of salesman who worked here. If they sometimes seemed old, they were. It was not unusual for people to work at Hamburger's for 40 years. Customers had the same kind of allegiance.

Until only a few years ago, the deal-board system was in effect. Each salesman's name was listed on a wooden paddle. Customers got waited on in order of that sequence. In this way, customers weren't pounced upon by eager suit salesmen.

"The system was dignified," Mr. Pullen said.

Hamburger's sold a great many locally made suits, often from the Baltimore tailoring giants, J. Schoeneman and L. Greif. The clothes were not inexpensive except when prices were cut twice a year during Hamburger's Remnant Day sales. Thrifty customers waited in line at the Baltimore Street revolving doors.

"I saw the same people year in and year out on remnant day. They didn't shop except for those times," recalled Albert Berney, a former president of the store and great-grandson of the founder.

Hamburger's was once a retailing power. It competed heavily with the old Hub, at Charles and Baltimore streets, owned by the Hecht family.

Nevertheless, Hamburger's once had certain exclusives.

"If you wanted to buy a pair of Florsheim shoes in the state of Maryland, you had to buy them from us," Mr. Berney said.

Hamburger's saw a major competitor fold in 1968. That was Warner's, a bastion of costly clothing on East Baltimore Street between Charles and St. Paul streets. Warner's held the local franchise on the famous Hickey Freeman suits, a name that Hamburger's coveted.

Hamburger's sold the same suit, made by the same manufacturer, but the label read "Walter Morton." Such were the rights and privileges of retailing exclusives.

There was a lot of excitement downtown when some 30 years ago Hamburger's agreed to sell its eight-story building as part of the Charles Center urban renewal plan and build a new, modern showplace. That Hamburger's opened in 1963.

A few years later, staid Hamburger's introduced Carnaby Street fashions, a high-style corner called the Now and Next Shop. There was also a Checkerboard Shop for the Princeton set.

Through it all, Baltimoreans remained loyal to their middle-course suits, Hathaway shirts and, on a splurge, a Countess Mara tie.

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