Slashed prices, bargains invoke Bernheimer name

Jacqes Kelly

September 16, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

As the shopping crowd charged through the doors o Nordstrom's new Towson store, a gray-haired woman walked in the opposite direction.

The mob of customers in the ground-level, bargain-price store known as the Nordstrom Rack was too much for her nerves. She walked away, saying, "This reminds me of Bernheimer's Basement."

Leave it to a Baltimorean of a certain vintage to compare the new Nordstrom's to Bernheimer's Basement, a store that folded in 1927. Baltimore's most battling budget store left an indelible impression.

Despite its distant demise, Baltimoreans still talk about the town's greatest low-price house. And 65 years later, the place remains a retailing legend, a name to be invoked at the mention of a slashed price.

The lady laughed in a good-natured way when she mentioned Bernheimer's. The place was something of a town joke. People made fun of the store, but used its goods. Some snooty types would tell the Bernheimer delivery man to park his wagon (first horse-drawn, later electrically powered trucks) around the corner the neighbors would not know the origin of the new sofa.

Ferdinand and Herman Bernheimer founded their store here in 1888, the same year the mighty and older firm of Hutzler Brothers opened its Palace Building at Howard and Clay streets. From the day it opened, Bernheimer's sought the little buyer, with only a few cents or maybe a dollar. The two brothers recognized that retailing fortunes could be made in the 300 block of W. Lexington St., just east of the Lexington Market.

The brothers courted shopping frenzy. They wanted their store filled with hundreds of people pawing over heaping tables of merchandise. They sought customers who would buy on impulse, regardless of whether they actually needed what they bought.

One local family still laughs about the time Uncle Fred was in the store during the height of a Bernheimer-induced shopping hurricane. He walked out with a waistcoat that never fit him. Thenceforth, any item bought without a good reason became a "Bernheimer's vest."

Bernheimer's basement earned a special niche in the collective memory of shoppers. It held a complete meat and grocery department. The basement was also the place where the store once sold surplus World War I, ex-U.S. Army horses. The cavalry chargers wound up on Baltimore and Anne Arundel county farms.

Bernheimer's was not alone in the low-price market; it had formidable competition. Eisenberg's, Julius Gutman's and Brager's all sought Baltimore's budget shopper.

But Bernheimer's liked to aim straight at the cash register of its competition, particularly Alfred A. Brager. Bernheimer's and the Brager's engaged in hostile retailing warfare. If one firm ran an ad in the city's morning newspapers (The Sun or the old Baltimore American), the competitor ran to The Evening Sun or the old Baltimore News and proclaimed merchandise at a lower price in the afternoon papers. The trade kept the printers busy.

The Bernheimer brothers never went broke selling cheap to Baltimoreans. But they did miscalculate terribly on a piece of real estate they didn't own. For many years they'd leased the building that was their principal Lexington Street entrance.

Like so many in the old shopping district, this building interconnected with others on the block bounded by Howard, Lexington, Fayette and Eutaw streets. But you had to have that almighty Lexington Street entrance if you wanted to pull in the budget shopper.

The brothers played a game of real estate chicken with the property owner, who demanded and held out for a higher rent. When the Bernheimers balked one final time, he signed a lease with another tenant. The Bernheimers found that while they had a large, modern store fronting on Fayette Street, the address was a retailing cemetery.

Facing ruin, they did some fancy footwork and merged with another store, called the Leader, which possessed frontage on both Howard and Lexington streets. By 1925, the firm cut the ribbon on a new million-dollar headquarters at that once magical selling corner of Howard and Lexington. It is this eight-story building that is slated to become the new Baltimore police headquarters.

Some people said that Bernheimer-Leader, as the merged store was known, made its fatal error when it decided to go uptown and compete with Hutzler's, Hochschild-Kohn and Stewart's, the mainline department stores.

When Bernheimer's went fancy, it failed. On Sept. 9, 1927, the Bernheimer flags were lowered for the last time. The store was bought by the May Co., the national firm that has remained in Baltimore ever since, first under that name, today as the Hecht Co.

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