Old-line Waverly hatter still finds himself on top

June 13, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

If you spot a man over 30 sporting a brimmed hat on Greenmount Avenue, chances are Bernard Becker sold it.

At age 85, the haberdasher dean of old Waverly is still in top form, on his sales floor every day but Wednesday, often near the three-way mirror in the men's clothing store founded by his father in 1909.

"We enjoy the people who come in here. I get along with everybody. My life has been people," says the broad-smiling Mr. Becker, who has been in the business full time since 1929.

As a young man, he entertained thoughts of going to medical school. He completed college at the University of Maryland, but spent a summer with his father, the late Jacob Becker.

"I liked this business too much. I dropped all thoughts of going back to school. Instead, my son became a doctor," Mr. Becker says.

His wide and deep store in the 3100 block of Greenmount Ave., with its perfectly maintained art deco walnut and oak showcases and carefully dressed display windows, is a wardrobe cabinet out of pre-World War II Baltimore. There are salesmen and -women ready to assist you. There is no self-service. Every rack of trousers and suits has two or three tape measures hanging from its end.

Becker's is something of a vanishing species -- a full-line men's clothing store. It stocks non-discounted traditional merchandise, from boxer shorts and men's hosiery garters to suits and formal dinner wear.

Customers seeking clothing with snooty designer labels and those who want the casual look of tennis shoes, T-shirts and jeans know this is not their address.

"I have nothing against jeans. I just don't want them in here," Mr. Becker says.

The charm of the place does not stop at the hand-operated cash registers or the spotless upstairs alteration room with its foot pedal-operated Singer sewing machine.

Mr. Becker's amazingly long-tenured employees say they like working here so much they call the place "Becker's Country Club."

They also don't seem to leave or retire. Albert Murray has been there 53 years; Gordon Register, 38 years; Anne Wallen, 37 years; Doris Garrett, 39 years; Bryant Jones, 8 years. Mr. Becker's daughter, Joanie Becker Cohen, also works at the shop, as does his wife, Ada, who comes in one day a week.

"I think my father handles and touches each hat here every day," Joanie Cohen says.

"As a young man I loved wearing hats. I taught all my sales people about hats.

"One of our best sellers is the Godfather model. The movie made it popular. It's priced right and people seem to like it," he says.

The Becker hat philosophy is that if a man chooses to wear a hat, there is one to fit your style, personality and the season of the year. He starts bringing out his large inventory of summer straw hats in March.

In the 1950s, when Waverly was one of the busiest neighborhood shopping districts in the city, Becker's shop had a steady clientele of prominent builders and sporting figures.

"Memorial Stadium was new and the players came in here. Many of the Colts weren't making tremendous salaries. They lived in this neighborhood. They'd congregate here on a Monday morning and then go up Greenmount Avenue to a neighborhood bar for a sandwich," says Mr. Murray, the salesman with the longest tenure.

"We gave out $25 gift certificates to the Orioles who were on the 'Dugout Chatter' radio show with Joe Croghan. Then they got together with a players' representative and decided that $25 wasn't enough for their time," Mr. Murray says.

Becker's survived without the ball players. Today many of its customers are mature gentlemen who like the personal attention and want a good-looking outfit for Sunday or social occasions. The shop also outfits groups of church ushers.

Mr. Becker is no proponent of volatile fashions or freakish designs. "When I was a young man, when you bought a suit, you got the coat, pants, vest and a pair of knickerbockers. Knickers did not last.

". . . Neither did the Nehru collar on suits. I bought some maybe 25 years ago. They were beautiful fabric and from a good manufacturer. I took a chance on them and they didn't sell," Mr. Becker says.

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