Treasure trove yields a bit of Baltimore history

September 30, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

A Bel Air man once called Baltimore Goodwill Industries, frantic to retrieve a favorite sports coat that his wife had given away. Officials said he could have it back if he could find it.

The man spent nearly a day at a loading dock, rooting through plastic bags and cardboard boxes overflowing with the thousands of donations that had just arrived. Finally he uncovered his coat -- and the $8,000 in cash that he'd stashed in the pocket.

"He'd been using the jacket as a bank, and his wife didn't know it," says Doug Hiob, Goodwill's vice president of industrial services.

The man pocketed his bankroll and left Goodwill's headquarters on Southwestern Boulevard in Arbutus, a rambling, three-story complex filled with the gimcracks and geegaws of generous donors.

Goodwill employees call the warehouse "Baltimore's attic." And attics are filled with . . . stuff.

A ceramic clock shaped like a sneaker. A box of trophies. Cracked crockpots. A xylophone.

Being surrounded by donations is "an intoxicating experience," says Douglas J. Kranz, manager of the Goodwill Book Nook on N. Charles St. "What a wonderful place to bring a sociology class. You can really see how America's tastes have changed over the years, for better or worse."

Contributions offer proof of how fads and fancies come and go. Ten years ago, shoppers trampled each other to purchase Cabbage Patch dolls. Now these same dolls are stacking up inside the warehouse.

"Every time a fad changes, we get a 'lump' of items from the old craze," Mr. Hiob says.

Millions of items are hauled to the warehouse in the course of a year, collected from 21 Goodwill donation sites in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties.

Half of it is junk: broken costume jewelry, used underwear, even old toothbrushes. The rest is sorted, stored and eventually shipped to Goodwill's 14 area stores.

Some items may never find a home. A biography of Sonny Bono. An artificial leg. A fox "scarf" stitched from five furry animals, their heads and feet still attached. Dozens of Barry Manilow albums.

The warehouse offers a peek at the past, from dusty phonograph records highlighting the Baltimore Colts' 1958 championship to placards touting Tommy D'Alesandro Jr. for mayor of Baltimore in 1967.

Here, one finds photo albums filled with snapshots of demolished city landmarks; decorative plates depicting cherished local churches; and garments that have outlasted the stores on their tags -- fur-trimmed coats from Hoschild Kohn and Hutzler's.

"Donations constantly refresh your memory of how life in Baltimore used to be," says Mr. Hiob. Last week's contributions included a record cut by the Institute of Notre Dame Glee Club, and another by the Douglas Memorial Community Church of Baltimore.

Compact discs and cassettes have pushed records from the retail scene, but not from Goodwill's warehouse. Albums arrive by the barrelful, an eclectic mix of everything from Liberace to Lynyrd Skynyrd, from Schumann to George Strait, from Miles Davis to Meat Loaf.

More than half are in good shape, and some seem not to have been played at all, says Mr. Kranz.

"The more valuable records are in the worst condition," he says, examining a scratchy LP from the 1950s. "Someone must have played this Chuck Berry album over and over again."

Mr. Kranz, 24, is tunneling through mountains of albums and old books, ferreting out donations that he hopes will appeal to his store's clientele -- "the 'trash' that someone will treasure."

A 1932 anthology of Eugene O'Neill's plays grabs his eye. So does a 50-year-old copy of "The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe."

Literary classics don't get the respect they once did, says Mr. Kranz, who can't fathom why someone discarded a first-edition anthology ofJack Kerouac's poems. Or an 1857 biography of Thomas Jefferson.

Thousands of books and periodicals flood the warehouse, where Mad magazines and Superman comics share space with T. S. Eliot.

In some donations are tales of sorrow and rejection. Mr. Kranz has found "Dear John" letters tucked inside books. And disgruntled wives have been known to pack up their husbands' belongings, clothes and all, and give them away.

Goodwill receives 8 million pounds of clothing a year, 10 percent of it new. Ever wonder what becomes of unsold department store apparel after the final markdown? Much of it ends up here, on racks that snake through the cavernous warehouse, where a $50 sweater from The Gap rubs elbows with an $82 dress from Hecht's. The clothes will be sold at a fraction of their cost.

Used clothing runs the gamut from ball gowns to bowling shirts rTC to blouses with flashy sequins. Those that pass muster have few imperfections.

"It might be missing a button, or maybe the collar is a little worn," says Mattie Hudson, an employee who has sorted clothes for 42 years.

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