How a store named Hamburgers created a writer

Gwinn Owens

July 31, 1992|By Gwinn Owens

THE FORCES that shape our destiny are often not recognized at the time, but it would be easy to argue that I am what I am because of a men's store called Isaac Hamburger & Sons, now, sadly, going out of business. It was one of those retail institutions, like Hutzler's, Hochschild Kohn or O'Neill's, whose civic-minded entrepreneurs gave -- and whose descendants still give -- Baltimore much of its character.

What I claim to be is a writer. Like many others aspiring for a specific career, a writer often decides to pursue his craft as a result of an early, unexpected success. Such a jump-start came from Hamburgers, circa 1930 when I was 9 years old. For as soon as I was out of rompers, my parents had bought my clothes -- at least my dress-up clothes -- from that venerable establishment that was then at Baltimore and Hanover streets.

For its young customers Hamburgers had a boys' club. Its members received a monthly (or perhaps quarterly) newspaper called Hey-Ho. The membership in the club, I suppose, was awarded to any boy whose parents outfitted him in the store. On the boys' floor there was a large line drawing of a handsome youth, whose name was "Jerry."

Jerry, whose picture was always the same likeness, was the apparent editor and factotum of Hey-Ho, which, as I recall, was filled with jokes, anecdotes and news for club members, including not-too-subtle suggestions from Jerry that your dad or mom should take you to Hamburgers, where there was often some kind of gift for boys who dropped in -- a puzzle, a game or some other trinket.

What changed my life, however, was the short story contest that Jerry conducted in Hey-Ho. Members were invited to write "a crazy story," and the craziest would win. With my mother cheering me on, I wrote a story, all of three paragraphs long, about my crazy little sister.

Having submitted it, I simply forgot all about it, as if I had entered some gigantic, unwinnable lottery. Months later a letter from Isaac Hamburger & Sons arrived, addressed to me. I thought it was just an advertisement. But on ripping it open, I was confronted with the thrill of my young life.

Enclosed was a crisp check for $3, an astronomical sum for a 9-year-old who, in those days, measured savings in nickels and dimes. A letter informed me that I had won the crazy story contest, and that this would be announced to the entire world through the vast circulation of Hey-Ho.

When Hey-Ho arrived, a few days or weeks later (with its picture of Jerry at the top), the main headline announced: "GWINN, YOU WIN." And there was reprinted, unedited and unexpurgated, my "crazy story" about my little sister. That, as I now like to recall, settled it: I would be a writer. And such I became, except, perhaps, in the opinion of some of my editors, readers and students.

Oh, certainly there were other influences that shaped me, such as parents and teachers, but that's not the point of this article. The real point is that that was a time when Baltimore's major retail merchants were a real factor in the cultural life of the community. Certainly the boys' club and its newspaper were sales gimmicks for Hamburgers (Jerry turned out to be fictitious, of course), but it was also a gesture to something more than sales.

And that was the custom among the executives of these home-owned retail establishments. They were among Baltimore's most dedicated community leaders and philanthropists. The boards of dozens of cultural and charitable institutions in Baltimore were and still are studded with such names as Hutzler, Kohn, Sondheim (a branch of the Kohn family), Hecht, Levi (related to the Hecht family), Hamburger and Berney (Hamburger descendants).

The stores that carried their names are gone or sold. Hutzler's and Hochschild Kohn are dead. O'Neill's, whose founder provided the money for the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, is long gone. Hecht's was sold many years ago to an out-of-town conglomerate. So was Hamburgers, which changed hands several times (and added women's clothes) until its terminal illness.

Apparently, such local, community-minded establishments simply cannot survive in the modern economy of scale. With their demise, however, Baltimore has lost that potential of future executives whose mission is not just to do business in Baltimore, but to make a substantial contribution to the city they call home.

The tycoons who call the shots now do not serve on the boards of Johns Hopkins or Goucher; they live in New York or Los Angeles (or, egads!, Charlotte) or Chicago -- or Tokyo.

Can one imagine Macy's or K-Mart or Ikea sponsoring a local club for kids, or conducting a writing contest? Had I grown up in today's impersonal world, my career might have been vastly different.

Gwinn Owens, retired editor of this page, teaches writing at the Johns Hopkins School of Continuing Studies.

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