Mano Swartz president explains decision to close

SAYING GOODBYE

December 08, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

For Richard Swartz, son of Mano, grandson of Jimmy and great-grandson of Mano, the fondest memory of a life in the fur business was a hug.

It was 1983, maybe 1984, he said. It was Christmas Eve. He and his father were closing up the family fur salon in Towson. Another holiday season, a marathon of seven-day weeks and 12-hour days, was over. They stepped outside into the parking lot.

"My father looked at me and I looked at him and we embraced," he said.

Richard Swartz, 33, said goodbye yesterday to the business he loves with a flair worthy of Baltimore's first family of fur.

Typically, retailers who close their businesses because of tough times hang a sign in the window and walk away to lick their emotional wounds in private. Mr. Swartz, the fourth and last president of Mano Swartz furriers, ordered a party platter and called a news conference in the sprawling York Road showroom where the portraits of his predecessors hang.

In a way, it was anticlimactic. The news that the 103-year-old family business would close after a final sale broke last week. But Mr. Swartz, the sole stockholder in the company, said he still felt he owed the Baltimore media "one day of our time to answer their questions in person."

Seated at an old wooden desk in front of the gray vaults that line the showroom, he told reporters that Mano Swartz could have survived, but it just wouldn't have been the same. Customers are unwilling to pay what it costs to make top-quality fur garments, he said, and the store would have had to bring in cheaper merchandise to maintain sales volume.

"The product we would have to sell would not be the quality we built our reputation on," Mr. Swartz said. "Our choice looks like this: compromise our integrity or close. So we just chose the latter. "

Pausing occasionally to dab a wet eye with his shirt sleeve, he fielded questions.

How many employees will lose their jobs? About 25, including part-timers. Is the company in debt? No, it is "totally debt-free." Is he disenchanted with the business? No, he loves the industry. "We have the finest industry in the world," he said.

And of course, there was the animal rights question, the one Mr. Swartz said he had never answered before.

No, he said, animal rights activists had nothing to do with the closing -- even though about a dozen members of the movement staged a jubilant demonstration outside the store Saturday, claiming credit for the demise of Mano Swartz.

"It was never a factor of any significance," he said.

But Mr. Swartz did give grudging credit to a more formidable foe.

"The recession has really been tough on the luxury industries," he said. "Maybe it's not great to flaunt when people are hurting."

He said the decision to close the store his great-grandfather foundedin downtown Baltimore in 1889 came after "numerous family meetings" at which all options, including selling the business, were discussed.

But in the end, it was his call, Mr. Swartz said, and he alone faced reporters yesterday. "My family supports me," he said.

So starting today, Mano Swartz will begin selling its remaining stock, including about 500 fur coats, to invited guests. Next Monday, the store will reopen to the public to sell the remaining merchandise. All repair work will be completed, he said.

Over the next 30 to 45 days, Mr. Swartz said, he will evaluate the "competence and character" of Baltimore's remaining furriers so that he can recommend another merchant to his customers. This spring, he said, Mano Swartz will call the people on its customer list and remind them to put their furs in summer storage.

"We're going to see that that's a smooth transition for our customers," he said.

And what about Richard Swartz's own transition? What becomes of a 33-year-old former store president who has worked in the fur industry all his adult life?

"I'm looking at all my options," he said. "I'm not leaving Baltimore in a hurry. I love Baltimore."

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