Store of endless variety called 'last of a dying breed' A 'broader selection' keeps Pumphrey's afloat

July 28, 1992|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,Staff Writer

An hour after opening yesterday, there was only one customer inside Pumphrey's Variety Store.

He was in the second aisle sifting through office supplies, searching through dozens of pen refills, erasers and Scotch tapes and glancing over file boxes of various colors.

But on some days, customers from as far away as Dundalk trek to the Shipley Linthicum Shopping Center on Camp Meade Road to buy pieces of embroidery and doilies stacked on shelves that line the variety store's back wall.

Owner Chuck Pumphrey recalls seeing two men in business suits come in last week. He said they went straight for the model planes and cars, giggling like young boys and reminiscing about their childhood.

"Yes, this is the last of a dying breed," says Mr. Pumphrey of Linthicum's only "five and dollar" store.

He bought the business from Homer Cleo McIntyre in 1978, but signs labeled "Mac's 5 to a dollar" still embellish the store's front windows, even though $10 seems to be the bottom line.

"Broader selection is our niche," says Mr. Pumphrey, 62, who was born and raised in Ferndale and has spent much of his life in Linthicum. "We are an everyday store, a community store. We don't have cases and cases of anything like the big guys [Caldor, Leedmark, Ames], but there is a saying in the community: 'If you can't find it anywhere else, you can find it at Pumphrey's.' "

Karen Vaughan, 36, lived 10 years in Linthicum before moving to Elkridge, but she still frequents Pumphrey's.

"There aren't any other stores like Mac's," she says, one of many customers who still refer to the store by its former name. "I usually come in here two or three times a week, sometimes everyday. If I need help, they are always here. It has a little bit of everything."

From wrapping material, greeting cards, kitchen wares and party supplies, to stationey, school supplies and laundry needs, Pumphrey's stocks it. It has six aisles and 4,500 square feet of everyday needs and low-end merchandise or hard-to-find items.

Mr. Pumphrey boasts of a sprinkler as the most unusual item on the shelves. It's a metal and wooden device shaped like a corkscrew and sells for $1.49. It is inserted in the mouths of soda pop bottles and used to sprinkle liquid over clothes just before ironing.

Open from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Mondays through Saturdays, Mr. Pumphrey says the store's most profitable periods are during the holidays, especially November and December, and during the first week of school.

Usually, however, five or so customers trickle in and out of the store at a time, with lunchtime being the busiest time of the day.

"That's why you don't find these kinds of stores around much," he says. "We run this store by its bootstraps. It doesn't generate a whole lot of bucks, but we manage to hang in there."

Mr. Pumphrey credits the rent structure set up by Joe Kirkpatrick, the shopping center's owner, as the main reason Pumphrey's is still in existence.

"I can go at any time, he can rent this place and get much more for it. But I don't think he wants to lose this store," he says. "The community would be hard-pressed because we are convenient, and even the discounters don't have the variety we have."

To keep costs as low and the payroll down, the store only has three employees -- Mr. Pumphrey, his wife Ruth, 59, and Carol Harmon, 45, a store employee since the late Mr. McIntyre owned it.

The Pumphrey family wanted the variety store to provide retirement income, but the family's other business, Chuck's Drive-In, a restaurant in the same shopping center, is a bigger moneymaker.

Mr. Pumphrey says the restaurant is too much work, so his daughter, Sharon, 34, manages it.

Mrs. Pumphrey says some days she would just like to sell the variety store, but overall, she enjoys it. "Pumphrey's is very well-thought-of in the community. We are depended upon, people expect us to have what they need. We are appreciated," she says.

Terry Lupton, a 44-year-old songwriter who now lives in Los Angeles, was a stock boy at the five-to-a-dollar store. He often visits his family in Linthicum and stops by Pumphrey's.

"The last of a dying breed is a good metaphor for this store. The image alone stands for a whole different era. Mr. Pumphrey has kept that alive. It kinds of chokes me up," he says.

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