Store owner is maintaining Main St. tradition

January 02, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Bladen Yates can't count the times speculators and investors have come a-calling, hoping to interest him in selling the two historic buildings where he's spent a lifetime as a grocery and hardware merchant on Main Street in Ellicott City.

"I get asked to sell all the time, but I won't because I like to work. It's as simple as that," says Mr. Yates. At 75, he's been on the job -- in the grocery store anyway -- since he was 7. He opened a hardware store next door in 1937, when he was just 19.

Both of Mr. Yates' shops smell of old, rich aromas and are crammed with a jumble of merchandise that rises to the ceilings on shelves.

The stores have somehow survived the assault of the warehouse clubs and chain groceries in the region, and the trend in boutiques and antiques that now rules Ellicott City's historic Main Street area.

The inside of each Yates store still evokes a bygone era -- a time when the grocer knew your name and honored your word, and the town operator would take your order if the store's line was busy.

"That was true sure as I'm standing here," says Mr. Yates, a hand raised in the Boy Scout honor manner.

But times have changed for the stores. So have customers.

One thing that won't change at the S. J. Yates & Son grocery and the S. Bladen Yates Hardware store, states Mr. Yates: "We offer personal service and try to get to know our customers."

In his view, that is how the two shops have managed to survive the six decades during which he has worked as a merchant on the town's Main Street.

Today, many of his customers are owners of the shops in town and residents who live nearby.

"This is mostly an antiques town now," laments Mr. Yates, a soft-spoken man with a benevolent manner and a fondness for humoring shop customers and visitors.

"There used to be six grocery stores here. Now I'm the only one left. Not too many stores like this one left, you know. I used to know all of our customers. I still know a lot of them, but not all."

In the 1920s when his father ran the grocery business, recalls Mr. Yates, "Most of our business -- 90 percent -- was done over the phone. My father didn't know what most of his customers looked like. But I did, because I would go out a lot on the deliveries."

The delivery service was a hallmark of the Yates trade. Today, the grocery doesn't have the hectic delivery trade it once did, but the store still delivers orders to several loyal longtime customers. While the halcyon days for the grocery and hardware stores may be gone, the shops -- and Mr. Yates -- remain something of institutions in the historic district of Ellicott City, an area of former flour and textile mills and stone homes rimming the Patapsco River.

'They are real'

"The great thing about the two stores are they are real. They aren't manufactured to look like the old Main Street grocery and hardware stores. They are," says Ed Williams, director of the B&O Railroad Museum, on Ellicott City's Main Street.

If Mr. Yates were to close the shops and sell the buildings, he -- and his stores -- would be sorely missed, says Mr. Williams, an active member of the Ellicott City Business Association. "It's a real piece of Main Street America that is very hard to find anymore."

The history of the Yates family and its service to the town runs to the Civil War Reconstruction era.

Mr. Yates started working at the grocery, owned and run at the time by his father, Samuel I. Yates, when he was 7 years old. Back then, he spent a lot of time racing off to homes and shops in the town to deliver orders.

Mr. Yates launched the hardware store the year before he married his wife, Ditty. And in the 1950s he took over running the grocery store, too, when his father retired.

His great-grandfather Samuel J. Yates founded the grocery on Ellicott City's Main Street in 1870.

Today, Mr. Yates' two daughters, Pauline Jacobs and Cheryl Libertini, work at the store. One day he'll pass on the store and its deep and rich history to them. Mr. Yates considered retiring about a year-and-a-half ago after the death of his wife.

"I really thought it might be time to retire then. But then I figured, what would I do? I'm not much of one to be sitting around in a rocking chair."

Indeed. Evenings, after he's settled in at home and had some supper, Mr. Yates gets cracking on some of the chairs dropped off at his hardware store for new cane seating.

Mr. Yates says his wife had a distinct talent for caning work. After they married, she took over running the hardware store. She developed a strong trade in caning chairs and that business has not subsided since her passing.

"We never did any advertising for it. It was all word of mouth," Mr. Yates says. "But that was enough. Some days you'd come in here and the chairs would be stacked up everywhere."

Today, the hardware store does the bulk of its business in caning work -- the weeks before Christmas were particularly busy.

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