A Hampden Institution Closes Shop

May 24, 1994|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Sun Staff Writer

When Japanese aircraft bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the country prepared to go to war and Ruth Klein prepared to lose the job she had started just six days before.

It took a little longer than that, but time and recession have claimed Howard C. Heiss Jewelers, a Hampden institution at the corner of 36th Street and Roland Avenue.

With owner Howard Heiss Jr. looking to retire and no buyer available, the store began a liquidation sale Thursday and will be gone before the store's 58th anniversary June 13.

"It's a family, it really is," said Mrs. Klein, the store's longtime bookkeeper. "When a family breaks up, it's sad. But as one of the girls said the other day, we're just going to have to go out to lunch or dinner one day every week. . . . And that's the truth."

But just as the family in Baltimore director Barry Levinson's film "Avalon" splintered when its members began to disperse to the suburbs, the family of customers that supported Heiss Jewelers and the Hampden shopping district in general has been splintering for a long time.

Mr. Heiss, who joined his father's business 44 years ago, said the rush to the suburbs was never disastrous -- only the recession of the past few years dealt a really bad blow to business -- but there has been a certain erosion for a long time now.

"At one time, it [36th Street] was a dynamic shopping center. There wasn't anything you needed that you couldn't get on 36th Street," Mr. Heiss said, recalling how people would take mass transit to Hampden from Timonium or Phoenix to shop. "The advent of the shopping malls and all, all that went down the drain. . . . If you have customers who move away, it's very rare that you see them again."

Nonetheless, Mr. Heiss allows that the rush to the suburbs probably hurt Hampden less than many city neighborhoods. Hampden then looked a lot like Hampden now -- a neat and unpretentious, if sometimes kitschy, community where flags flutter from porches and some of the most extravagant Christmas lighting in town can be found each December, a place of mostly working-class people who can, like Mrs. Klein, call adult female sales clerks "girls" without batting an eye.

But while Hampden is still a relatively safe, clean neighborhood for all its changes, it is not a place where a jewelry store could hide from the early 1990s recession.

"It didn't kill us -- we weren't dead -- but we did notice that things were much slower," said Mr. Heiss, the tall 70-year-old store owner. "We noticed it more after the last three years. After the real estate crash, it just seemed to affect everything. And I've never seen corporate downsizing like that -- not two or three people but 200 or 300. People were fearful."

So now the store's middle-market collection of watches and rings, along with the small appliances the store also sells, are marked down by half to prepare for the end, set to come next week.

Mr. Heiss says he'll tend to his garden this summer, then maybe turn to some volunteer work as the weather turns colder. Mrs. Klein says she's hitting the road, with trips to Wildwood, Ocean City and even Alaska on tap.

"There's a certain amount of sadness because of the relationships with the people," Mr. Heiss said, thinking back four decades when he tried his father's business for a while and decided to stay. "I liked dealing with people, and a lot of this business is dealing with people. So I stayed home."

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