Remnant-fabric firm knows how to survive

Jacques Kelly

July 31, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

Anybody who thinks Baltimore's garment-making industry is a thing of the past should visit 419 W. Baltimore St.

But don't ask to buy anything.

"We're strictly wholesale, and we carry the better goods," says ,, Herbert Guss, the ebullient owner of a warehouse full of Irish linen, Japanese cottons, Chinese silks and New Zealand wools.

Mr. Guss is the downtown survivor of the city's textile jobbers, a merchant who sells a tremendous stock of odd-lot fabrics to dry goods stores, custom tailors and clothing manufacturers.

Four ready-to-explode floors of a 19th century building are weighed down with an inventory of houndstooth, shepherd's plaid, gabardine and window pane check remnants and piece goods.

And there's an attic, too, a hot chamber under the roof that serves as the temporary orphanage for the materials that nobody ever wanted to buy.

"This is where I keep my mistakes, you know -- the double-knits," says Mr. Guss, as he gives a cellar-to-elevator shaft tour of his fascinating business.

He says the firm was founded by his grandfather, Joseph Guss, whose family name once had an "e" on the end. The old weighs-a-ton safe still is marked with that name. His son, Harry Guss, followed his father into the business.

"We're 75 years old, maybe 76," Herbert Guss says. "All I know is that I started here helping out my father just before World War II. I sold cleaners' supplies out of a car. After the war, I went full time and have been in business ever since."

For the past 22 years, he has had his current Baltimore Street warehouse.

Mr. Guss never has given up his taste for meeting and chatting with old customers. He still likes to get in his car and drive north to the Lancaster County heartland of the Mennonite and Amish farm country.

He calls on the Plain People who run small dry goods stores. Some operate out of their kitchens. A few have larger businesses.

"They are practical people," he says. "They make their own clothes and the fabrics have to be durable and simple. The men like to have their suits washed. We sell a lot of dark blue Swedish knits -- all polyester -- in dull tones.

"They are good business people. Most of them won't go to sleep at night until they've paid their bills."

Mr. Guss has sales agents all over the country and in Canada, too. They call on the small fabric shops that might need 10 yards of a tan gabardine and as many of a silky soft Supima cotton.

His fabric comes from some of the country's biggest clothing manufacturers.

"I can't tell you the names," he says. "That would give secrets. I don't operate with a computer. I do all the business out of my head and my back pocket. If I ever knew how much goods I had, I would stop buying.

"My accountant tells me I don't do anything according to the rules, but I make money."

On one floor, he has a large pile of "pants lengths," fine wool remnants (the largest is about 2 1/2 yards) left over from men's suit manufacturing.

Many of these pieces are long enough for a skilled tailor to make a pair of men's pants.

"These are real strong goods, 45 percent wool and 55 percent poly," he says, pointing to a pile of former American Airlines navy-blue flight attendant suiting. Within a few weeks, this fabric will wind up in some fabric shop's inventory.

"We don't carry slipcover or drapery stuff, but you'd be surprised the number of people who will cover a sofa in corduroy."

At quitting time, Mr. Guss puts aside the bolts of cloth and goes home to Minna Guss, the woman he married some 40 years ago. But bolts of cloth never are far from his mind.

"This is a dog-eat-dog business," he says. "I love it."

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