Dry-goods temple enters new era with purchase

January 26, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

Depending upon their ages, Baltimoreans remember the dry-goods temple at Howard and Lexington streets as either Bernheimer-Leader or the May Co. or Hecht-May or the Hecht Co.

The department store opened in May 1925 and remained a stalwart of the Howard Street shopping district until the retail scene got so bad that the store had to close.

Now comes word that the corporation that owns the Rite Aid pharmacies, has purchased the store.

There is something odd about Rite Aid purchasing the old Hecht outlet. It's as if the small but peppy Rite Aid store on the east side of Howard Street is buying the big store directly opposite it.

Baltimoreans view Rite Aid as the descendant of the old Read Drug and Chemical Co. Its name may have changed, but the firm has been at Howard and Lexington for more than a century. Throughout all the changes this neighborhood has experienced, the drug store has been a constant.

Read's, whose present art deco building opened Sept. 21, 1934, was once the largest drug chain in Baltimore. It was founded in 1883 by William H. Read, who sold out not long after that date to the Nattans family.

Many a downtown shopper slipped in here for a roll of film, a bottle of Witch Hazel or a pint of hooch. The doors here never seemed to close. And even with the declining fortunes of the old retail district, this store always has customers. Read's employees called the Howard and Lexington store No. 1.

It was also a force in downtown feeding, with a basement restaurant, a first-floor soda fountain and mezzanine tables. The streamlined 1930s detailing around the balcony featured jumping dolphins.

The Read's lunch counters were quintessential Baltimore soda fountains.

Last week, friends returned here for a family funeral. They visited what is now a Rite Aid and missed the soda fountain. Sorry, it's been gone for nearly 20 years.

Consider the bill of fare, circa 1940: "skyscraper" double ice cream (Hendler's of course) sodas, Wilkin's coffee, Hire's root beer and Smithfield ham sandwiches.

There were egg phosphates and egg orangeades listed on an old Read's menu I consulted at the Pratt Library, but I somehow doubt these beverages were hefty sellers.

The lunch counters were shut down about the time that the Nattans family sold out to Rite Aid in 1977. It was also the time when fast food chains were making heavy inroads in the quick-feed market.

That same year, 1977, also was a landmark date for Howard and Lexington. Hochschild Kohn closed that September. In a little more than a decade, all the other stores would abandon what had been the long-time shopping crossroads of Baltimore. Four of the city's big merchants (Hochschilds, Hutzler Brothers, Stewart's and Brager-Gutman's) would disappear altogether, along with Epstein's, the popular budget store.

Rite Aid and the Hecht Co. emerged as survivors, although the department store's hulking Howard Street building has not had any retailing for the past five years.

The Hecht Co. building is one of the street's faded giants, 70 years old this May.

Its construction coincided with years of profitable selling by the legendary Bernheimer brothers, Abe and Ferdinand.

What these men couldn't sell, nobody wanted to buy.

During the golden 1920s, their firm may not have been the most glamorous store in Baltimore, but it was the most aggressive, too aggressive in fact.

Bernheimer's plan to go uptown with better merchandise in a fancy, eight-story modern department store building failed.

The firm was forced to sell out to the May Company chain in September 1927.

"It was a huge store," recalled Pat Trimp of the Hecht Co. outlet at Howard and Lexington.

She worked in the retail district for 43 years, beginning with The Hub at Charles and Baltimore streets, and retired from the Hecht Co. in 1989.

"It had a lot of exits and entrances and toward the end, the police arrested a street person for shoplifting a pocketbook," Miss Trimp said. "I said to them, 'Don't handcuff her, she's old woman.'

"The police came back to my office in the credit department later that day. They told me she had $5,000 sewn in her coat," Miss Trimp recalled.

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