Becker's Clothes of Waverly about to close after 86 years

April 01, 1995|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

Another small piece of Baltimore's tradition is about to vanish.

Eighty-six years after it opened and two months after its owner died, Becker's Clothes in Waverly is preparing to sell its last suit.

The traditional menswear store will close the day before Easter, its operators say. Ada Becker, the widow of longtime owner Bernard B. Becker, gave two reasons for the store's fate: It no longer can compete with suburban malls, and her children's lives and careers are too busy to keep it going.

"It's a very sad feeling," she said. "It was always a nice feeling to come to the store, meet people, socialize."

Her husband, who was born a year before his father opened the store, died of a stroke Jan. 22. Until his death, he operated the store with the help of loyal employees, including salesman Albert V. Murray, who started working there in 1940 and still waits on customers.

Now the family is putting the building up for sale.

"It's a pretty emotional, sad thing, really," said Mr. Murray, 75. "To spend all that time in a business and enjoy it. Even though you anticipate that it's going to happen sooner or later, when it happens it's sort of a shock."

Mr. Murray, who is shown modeling a suit in a 1946 ad culled from a storage area, blamed the store's demise on a decline in dressing standards among young adults. "Men are not as concerned with the way they dress as they used to be," he said. "You go out to dinner now and you might see a man in a sports shirt rather than in a jacket and tie."

Surprised customers have been just as eager to find out why the store is closing as they are to save money on markdowns.

"I'm really sorry to hear about this," lamented Prentis Robinson, 62, a customer for 25 years who was wearing a cap, shirt and pants he'd bought from the store previously. "I guess I'll try to find someplace like this somewhere."

Oliver Clark, 66, was a relatively new customer, one who thought he'd found his kind of store when he stepped into Becker's three months ago. "I was planning to be a steady customer," said Mr. Clark, who had driven in from Randallstown.

Becker's black facade on Greenmount Avenue melts inconspicuously into a row of businesses that includes a jewelry store, a gift shop, a check-cashing outlet, an auto parts store and a beauty salon.

"Going out of business" signs are posted on the windows at Becker's. Inside, an overhead sign reads: "Dress Right . . . You can't afford not to." Below the fluorescent lights are shirts, pinstriped three-piece suits, shoes and two walls of hats.

In its heyday in the 1940s, Becker's had three stores, including a women's clothing shop at Charles and Saratoga streets and a store in Towson. "We had a mailing list of hundreds and hundreds of people," Mrs. Becker said, recalling the glory years with the aid of a photo album that captured scenes of the store through the decades. Snapshots taken in 1966 show sales people dressed in orange as the Orioles, who played at nearby Memorial Stadium, were driving to a World Series title.

Mrs. Becker said she retired 25 years ago, and since then has worked about one day a week.

"I'll tell you when I retired. It's when the girls started wearing miniskirts," said Mrs. Becker, who closed the women's section rather than sell the revealing apparel. "I couldn't go for it. We were very conservative ladies who were catering to career women and housewives." Her husband also was stuck on tradition. He stocked the art-deco showcases with such items as men's hosiery garters, formal dinner wear and Stetson hats. He eschewed designer labels, and the store never carried jeans.

Today, there are some concessions to contemporary tastes. Some colorful shirts hang on the racks, across from African kente cloth ties on the counter.

Upstairs in the hot sewing room, 84-year-old Agnes Mangione is winding down a 50-year career on an old Singer sewing machine with foot pedals. She worked there, side-by-side with her brother and sister, through World War II. "I'm going to miss it because it feels like home here," she said. "One big family."

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