Where a nickel went a long way on a July day BALTIMORE CITY

JACQUES KELLY

July 23, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

It's hard to forget the Baltimore confectionery store where you may have spent many a slow July afternoon some 35 years ago.

The store where my buffalo head nickels disappeared was owned by Ernest E. Bentz, a no-nonsense businessman long remembered after his death. He always seemed to be behind the counter, wearing an apron as neat as the part in his white hair.

Regular customers always talked about the diamond and onyx ring he wore and gossiped about the amount of money he may have accumulated, saying he had saved every penny he had earned. He had a reputation for short-changing customers.

Ernie was a fairly stern bachelor who did not tolerate rowdy behavior in his store. You were not supposed to sass him. Many of the neighborhood children dutifully called him Mr. Bentz. More than a few were afraid of him.

I was one of the few 5-year-olds who got away with calling him Ernie. My grandfather was one of his best customers, having bought many plugs of Dan Patch chewing tobacco, and that status rubbed off on me.

The store sat at the southwest corner of 29th and Barclay streets. Ernie had earlier operated at two other locations, each of them facing Barclay, one at 28th Street and the other at Ilchester Avenue. His 29th Street store, named the Snack and Chat Shop, was his largest. It closed about 1970.

The shop was not fancy. There was no soda fountain. Flypaper hung from the ceiling. There was a rack of newspapers, TastyKakes, bottled colas and a small deli counter. A bologna sandwich was about as tricky as the menu got.

The shop was always clean and orderly, reflecting the everything-in-its-place mentality of its proprietor. Early each morning, Ernie would be outside with a bucket of sudsy Spic-and-Span, washing the sidewalk. During slack periods in the afternoon, he'd be out with a bottle of ammonia, washing the windows.

His penchant for order and cleanliness was reflected in the glass counter that held the penny candy. He must have rearranged it three times a week.

This part of the store was not self-service. All the stock was loose, kept in trays or cardboard boxes. There were one-cent red dollars, Mary Janes, malted milk balls, Mexican hats, Goetze's caramel creams, spearmint leaves, miniature wax Coke bottles, squirrel taffy bars, bubble gum, Tootsie Rolls and sugar dots on white paper strips. The standard mix was a five-cent bag which Ernie filled by hand with the customer's selections.

When someone asked for a product that was stacked on a shelf near the ceiling, customers held their breath as he took a pole with a grasping device at one end and scooped boxes of Fab detergent or cans of Maryland Chief tomatoes.

Ernie's store was the place where neighborhood children also bought baseball cards. We collected them for fun, never profit. ,, The shop attracted a lot of Orioles-related chatter. Ernie had tubular steel stools for the serious fans -- mostly retired men. Tommy Thomas, manager of the International League Orioles, often came by. So did Billy Hunter. It was no big deal. They were part of the neighborhood scene. For many years, Ernie counted on trade from the old Oriole Park across 29th Street. Even after the team moved to 33rd Street in 1944, fans still returned to Ernie's.

In the 1950s, Ernie's prices did not change much. But certain summers, a snowball could cost more than the summer before because of fluctuations in the ice market. On Memorial Day, he posted the base tariffs, usually five cents for fruit flavors in a small cup. There was also a larger 12-cent version. Marshmallow was a nickel extra.

Only the rich ordered chocolate syrup, at least a dime for Ernie's small version, often short on the cocoa extract.

Ernie also sold the Cadillac of Baltimore snowballs, the Pike's Peak. It came in an extra large cup, the size of a small pot for a plant. The cup was filled with ice and the expensive chocolate flavoring. He took a Dixie Cup's worth of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, placed it atop the ice, added a marshmallow bath and a cherry on the pinnacle.

At 25 cents, the price of a child's admission to the movies, a Pike's Peak was strictly for high rollers.

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