Shiller closing out 5 decades in furniture

March 12, 1995|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Sun Staff Writer

Soon now, the pink and orange Day-Glo "Going Out Of Business" signs will come down from Carroll Shiller's furniture store and a Baltimore County landmark will fade into a historical footnote.

But just as important, business leaders and customers say, the retirement of the 76-year-old businessman will deprive Dundalk's old community of a piece of its color and character.

"After I saw a furniture store across the street from where I grew up as a kid, I decided then that I wanted to own a furniture store," Mr. Shiller said. "I did -- and now I want to walk away instead of being carried away."

Mr. Shiller has sold furniture and appliances in the Baltimore area for nearly a half century -- the last 22 years in the 7400 block of Holabird Ave. Through transactions involving countless recliners, lamps, refrigerators and bedroom suites, he built a reputation for honesty and trust among customers and employees.

He speaks lovingly about his customers and the people who work for him. And he remembers the three most difficult funerals he ever attended.

"James Kimbel . . . Walter Bawroski . . . Henry Rayner. I'll never forget them."

In October 1984, a five-alarm fire burned his store to the ground and claimed the lives of those three county firefighters after a wall and floor collapsed. Ten other firefighters were injured in what Fire Department officials today describe as the worst blaze in county history.

"I rebuilt that store against a lot of odds," Mr. Shiller said. "Now, I want to liquidate my business because my son isn't interested in selling furniture for a living, and I have to slow down a little bit in my life."

Another furniture store probably will replace Shiller Furniture & Appliance this summer, he said.

But Pat Winter, executive director of the Eastern Baltimore Area Chamber of Commerce, said the community will lose a merchant who knew many of his customers by their first names and who granted credit with a handshake, often without interest.

"He comes from a class of entrepreneur that is disappearing in America," Ms. Winter said.

In 1953, Richard C. Weibel, who now lives in Ellicott City, went to Shiller's to furnish his first home, a rowhouse in Edmondson Heights. Since then, most of Mr. Weibel's seven children have purchased their furnishings from Shiller's.

"He was always honest and he could read you like a book," Mr. Weibel said. "He gave us the furniture to our first home entirely on credit, and he didn't ask for a dime of interest."

The instincts that served Mr. Shiller so well were honed when he grew up with six brothers and sisters above their father's grocery store in South Baltimore. After he graduated from Southern High School and served in the Army during World War II, Mr. Shiller started in the refrigeration business.

"I fixed them, I carried them," he said. "Refrigerators are tough to lug, but there is nothing like carrying a triple-drawer dresser up a flight of stairs."

He owned a series of small stores and opened his largest in 1963 in Brooklyn. He closed that store in December. Dundalk is his last. Along the way, "I gave credit to a lot of people, partly based on how I grew up and how tough it was for young people to get started," he said. "I can look at people, how someone comes across, their presentation, and pretty much be right. But sometimes you misplace trust and find people who can't keep their promises. I've lost money because of that. I'd like to have what I lost in trusting people."

Mr. Shiller has watched Dundalk lose thousands of blue-collar jobs in the steel and automobile industries over the last decade. And he has seen the grown children of those blue-collar workers move out of eastern Baltimore County.

"A lot of them are moving to Harford County," Mr. Shiller said. "This area is still the home of hard-working, clannish people who aren't as wealthy as they once were during the steel boom years. But they continue to reject credit cards and buy with cash."

When the fire destroyed his store, insurance covered most of his property losses but didn't provide protection for his 18 employees. They were valued people he did not want to lose. Jim Byrnes, manager of the Dundalk store since it opened, recalled the owner's loyalty to his workers and his generosity.

"It took nearly three years to rebuild, and there were some very difficult spots along the way, but Mr. Shiller paid everybody out of his pocket during that time," Mr. Byrnes said. "We have never fired a person from this store. Every employee who left has retired."

Mr. Shiller's business philosophy was to treat his workers like a family, and everything else would work in his favor.

"Now it's bottom-line thinking everywhere you go," he said. "There is less honor and more greed. Large conglomerates are replacing people like me. That's the way of the world."

A widower, Mr. Shiller said the retirement communities are not appealing to him.

"Nope, I'm going to stay at my home in Ellicott City," he said. "That way I'll be around all my family and friends. That's always been important to me."

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