You have to be nuts to resist this shop

March 15, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

The old-fashioned mechanical cash register keys clatter away in the small store at 101 W. Lexington St. in downtown Baltimore.

Customers -- through the front door and for a quarter get a thin paper bag of peanuts.

The big-spenders shell out for a hand-packed, pound box of salted cashews or pistachios or malted milk balls. It's been this way for just about 50 years at the Peanut Shoppe, the place where a papier-mache Mr. Peanut still beckons hundreds of snackers.

"It's the smell [of roasting peanuts] that helps. People say they try to make it down the street without coming in but turn around and walk back," said Bonnie Scible, who bought the shop four years ago.

She says that her best advertising is the 100-year-old peanut roasting machine that is vented out the window. There's also a nut cooking pot just inside the door that spreads aromatic peanut oil throughout the shop.

The tiny Peanut Shoppe reflects its name. But the store has enormous staying power. It's outlasted so many of its bigger Lexington Street neighbors. Where are Brager-Gutman's department store, Woolworth's, Stewart's and the New Theatre? Not on Lexington Street, once the busiest shopping street in Baltimore.

Somehow the tiny store ha a steady supply of customers in a retail neighborhood that each year inherits more and more commercial vacancies.

"When I walk up Lexington Street, I just wish it was like it was 20 years ago," says Scible.

Her loyal customers come from the headquarters of the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., just across Liberty Street, which intersects Lexington.

Across Center Plaza is the One Charles Center building, which opened in 1962 and which for many years was a symbol of the city's efforts to rebuild downtown.

"Every time there's a layoff or job changes at [downtown businesses] I worry a little bit," Scible said. "The worst part is losing a customer you liked to see come in most every day."

The Peanut Shoppe may have thrived all these years because of its advantageous location on a busy downtown street corner. Three bus lines -- the Nos. 3, 11 and 31 -- coast down the steep Liberty Street hill, then brake for the corner of Lexington Street, where there is always a waiting group of transit passengers. More than a few of them find time to hurry into the store for a quick fix of chocolate peanuts, a staple of the shop, or some other snacks.

No wonder then that the 38-year-old Scible has an abiding faith in her Lexington Street location. "I always felt that downtown was where everything was, the center, the heart," the native of Middle River said.

After graduating from Kenwood Senior High, she became a legal secretary who also did accounting work. For 15 years, she worked for lawyer Alvin Braverman.

"I always wanted a small business of my own. I had tried to open a peanut and candy store in Golden Ring Mall but it didn't work out. Malls really aren't right. I like to be able to walk around outside," she said.

The small shop caters to the wants and cravings of its devoted customers. She and her staff -- Donald Johnson, Vicki Cascio, Glenda Smith and Shelly Mulkern -- toast nuts in nearly as many combinations as some coffee roasters prepare beans.

"We sell nuts raw, half raw, light, regular roast, well done and dark. There are people who want burnt nuts," Scible said.

The shop hums with a rhythm established around the times of the day and the day of the week. Lunch hour is hectic; so is quitting time. At almost every hour of the business day, the drum on the antique peanut roaster hums as it spins, kind of like a clothes dryer for goobers.

"Friday is the big day. People get paid and they are out for lunch," Scible said. "No matter how busy the shop gets, the customers know we all work hard and quickly to get them out. We know they are on lunch break or waiting for a bus. It makes us feel good that very few people get out of line and leave. If they do leave, they come back later in the day.

"I never want to leave here. This is where I belong. This store is a part of downtown, and downtown wouldn't be the same without it," she said before dashing off to help wait on a line of people that had formed in the narrow shop.

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