Changing Times Claim Mano Swartz

December 19, 1992

Changing times have claimed yet another Baltimore institution -- Mano Swartz, the 103-year-old family furriers.

In an era when much of merchandizing has concentrated in the hands of faceless conglomerates directed from far-away cities, the history of this local company reads like a veritable period piece. It involves a 22-year-old Hungarian forest ranger named Mano Swartz, who is drawn to America by the gold rush of the 1880s, but ends of up in New York learning the fur trade. In the process he marries the sister of the Saks brothers (as in Saks Fifth Avenue) and starts a fur store in downtown Baltimore.

Mano Swartz was an art collector, avid traveler and real estate genius. In 1924, he bought the whole 34-acre former foundry village of Ashland in Baltimore County for $43,000, becoming the owner of 24 dwellings and landlord to 125 villagers.

After the death of Mano Swartz, the company was run by the founder's youngest son Jimmy.

Politics and furs may not be the easiest of combinations. But Jimmy served as president of the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union in the turbulent 1960s, advocated the construction of a second Harbor tunnel and headed the North Charles General Hospital. By all accounts, he was also a talented businessman. After World War II, he celebrated a Veterans Day by giving a substantial discount to any war veteran who came to the store with discharge papers. He reportedly sold more than 200 coats in one day!

In 1976, the Mano Swartz store left Howard Street for Towson, following customers who had been moving to the suburbs in droves. Despite the new location, the shop was run pretty much as it had been 100 years earlier. "We haven't opened up branch offices, we want to keep all under one roof. We treat our customers with just the same consideration as back then. We get involved in helping the community. You can't just be a taker," co-owner Richard Swartz explained.

Times were changing, however. When the company offered 100 traded-in fur coats to the needy in 1986, social agencies were reluctant to touch them. They cited "significant social problems" -- such as animal rights advocates' opposition to pelts that keep people warm. Meanwhile, similarly drastic changes were occurring in fur merchandizing, making it difficult for quality operations to survive in a cut-throat market place.

We bid good-by to Mano Swartz in the words of its own sign when it left Howard Street: "Au Revoir, This is It, The End, So Long."

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