CATEGORY busters," those mammoth retailers that sell everything in a category -- food, clothing, building products, pet supplies -- have helped spell the end of many a family-owned business in Baltimore. Among them is Lucas Brothers, the downtown stationer which quietly changed hands (and names) last September after 189 years.
Lucas, one of the oldest stationery stores in the country, was founded in 1804, 100 years before the Great Baltimore Fire, by Fielding Lucas. Save for a short time on Charles Street after the fire, it was on East Baltimore Street all those years (even when Baltimore Street was called Market Street), first at 116, then at 221. Lucas dominated the stationery business in Baltimore throughout most of its life.
Pencils, pens, typing paper, carbon paper, scratch pads, ledger books, paper clips, file folders -- for half a century, Michael F. Pajtis has been selling such items for Lucas and its successor, A.J. Stationers. He started work for Lucas when he was 14.
"Oh, through the years I've watched the business and the neighborhood change," he says. "I saw street cars become trackless trolleys and trackless trolleys become buses."
Lucas Bros., according to Mr. Pajtis, had prestigious neighbors over the years. One of them was American Trading and Production, the company that introduced what is today Amoco gasoline. "They were in the American Building just down the street. They and all of the other firms that used to be downtown here -- especially those in the old Tower Building right across the street -- kept Lucas Bros. a busy, thriving business for a long, long time."
Meyer and Thalheimer, located for many years at 10 S. Howard St., was Lucas' major downtown competitor. It's gone, too. What killed it, Mr. Pajtis says, "was more than location and the discounters. They took a chance and opened a toy department. It never worked."
Today's superstores, such as Office Depot, are mixed blessings. You can park easily, and prices are discounted because the stores can buy in volume. But you give up the friendly, over-the-counter service like that provided for nearly two centuries by Lucas Bros.