Towson furrier store closing after 103 years

December 05, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

NOTE: Mano Swartz's Lutherville location is still open. 

Mano Swartz, a family business that has wrapped Baltimore women in mink and sable for 103 years, will close this month, saying it refuses to lower its quality standards to make the price cuts necessary to survive in today's market.

"It is with emotions astir that I tell you that Mano Swartz will close its doors," company President Richard Swartz said in a letter to customers dated Wednesday.

Mr. Swartz told customers that the Towson store would sell off its entire inventory to invited guests "at a fraction of retail value" // in a going-out-of-business sale Tuesday through Saturday.

"Rather than sell our entire inventory through a liquidator or to a liquidator, my family wanted our customers to be able to own every one of these excellent furs at significant savings from us," Mr. Swartz wrote.

In a rare gesture for a company that is closing, Mano Swartz scheduled a luncheon and press conference for Monday to announce its demise.

Richard Swartz, the 33-year-old great-grandson of the founder, declined yesterday to talk about the company's decision, saying he preferred to answer questions at Monday's press conference.

Swartz's closing brings to an end a devastating year for Baltimore's dwindling corps of centenarian retailers.

In October, Hamburgers closed its downtown store as it ended a 142-year run in Baltimore. In November, 105-year-old Simon Harris Sporting Goods went on the auction block after two banks foreclosed on the business.

In his letter, Mr. Swartz said the Towson store survived the Great Depression, but "the current recession has been far more unkind."

"Some furriers will survive," Mr. Swartz wrote. "But survival tactics in our business focus on dramatically reducing prices. The only way to accomplish this while remaining profitable is to lower quality standards on our furs.

"Faced with these alternatives, the Swartz family opted to close."

Mano Swartz, an immigrant from Hungary, founded the business in 1889 on Lexington Street in downtown Baltimore. The store was a fixture on Lexington Street and later Howard Street for decades before moving to Towson in 1976.

The founder passed the store to his son Jimmy in 1925, 16 years before Mano Swartz died. Jimmy Swartz continued to work in the shop until his death in 1977.

His successor was his son Mano Swartz II, who retired seven years ago and passed the business to his son Richard and daughter Lora.

The news of the closing brought dismay to loyal longtime customers of the store, whose founding family prided itself on attentive customer service and encyclopedic knowledge of the fur business.

Outside the red brick store at 424 York Road, under a sign that advertised a "Fleeting Moments" sale, Mary Collins of Towson recalled that it became a tradition in her family for her husband to buy each of their daughters a Mano Swartz fur when she was old enough.

"I'm sorry to see it happen," said Mrs. Collins, who had shopped at Swartz for 40 years. "They're the top of the line in Baltimore."

But Patty Cockey, an animal-rights activist who spent many a day outside Mano Swartz dressed in a blood-spattered old fur coat with an animal trap hanging from it, felt vindicated.

"Wonderful!" she exclaimed yesterday when told of Swartz's plan to close. "That's the best news I've had in a year."

Ms. Cockey, a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said her organization's efforts to persuade people not to buy fur were part of the reason Swartz and other fur stores were closing.

"There was a time when people thought it was glamorous," she said. "Now you look at a woman in a fur coat and it's 'Shame on you!' "

Mano Swartz's closing leaves Kent-Fisher Furs on Allegheny Avenue the only remaining full-line furrier in Towson.

Eileen Katz, who manages the Kent-Fisher store, said she is sorry to see her business' longtime rival go. "Competition's good for us," she said.

However, Ms. Katz disagreed with Mano Swartz's assertion that it would have to compromise quality to remain in business. "That's not true at all -- not for us," she said. "We have not had to cut quality at all."

Ms. Katz said she also doubted that pressure from animal-rights protesters played any role in the closing of Swartz, which had been the target of demonstrations as recently as the day after Thanksgiving. "If anything, it's calmed down," she said, adding that "it's been a wonderful season so far" for her business.

Bill Outlaw, media relations director for the Fur Information Council of America, said his trade organization estimates there are about 2,000 furriers in the United States, compared with about 2,400 three or four years ago. He said that the rate of attrition was comparable with that of other industries during the recession.

Mr. Outlaw dismissed claims by animal-rights activists that their protests were driving down the cost of furs, instead citing overproduction by mink farms in Scandinavian countries.

He added that the industry has been hurt by warm weather the past two winters, but that a cold start to this year's season was already heating up sales.

"If you go to New York or Chicago on a cold day," he said, "I'll guarantee you'll see a lot of furs."

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