Hirsch's is still the posy in Main Street's lapel

April 09, 1995|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Sun Staff Writer

There's a photo of Hirsch's Men's Store Inc. taken in the mid-1920s in which the shop, at 9 S. Main Street in Bel Air, is flanked by whitewashed houses with Model A's parked on the dirt road.

Hirsch's Men's Store has barely changed since that picture was taken 70 years ago.

Its surroundings are different -- the houses are gone, replaced by a pizza shop on one side and lawyers' offices on the other. And the road in front is paved.

But owner David Cohen said the shop looks pretty much the same inside and outside as it did the day in 1938 when he started working part-time and weekends for master tailor Benjamin Hirsch.

Inside, the shop is stuffed with boxes of shirts, hats and racks of clothing. The ceiling height drops as you walk through the store because, Mr. Cohen said, the only way to expand the shop was to keep adding onto the rear of the store. The face of the shop was modernized in 1951 with deeper display windows and a dark green awning. Mr. Cohen sees no reason to modernize again.

The original owner, Mr. Hirsch, who had emigrated from Romania as a teen-ager, and his wife, Clara, who acted as general manager, lived over the store with their three daughters.

Mr. Cohen decided to learn the trade because he and Hannah Hirsch, one of the Hirsch daughters, had fallen in love.

The two met in Philadelphia, where Mrs. Cohen, now a respected artist, was taking art courses and Mr. Cohen was taking night classes at Drexel University. They have been married since 1941 and have three grown children, none of whom wants to take over the family business.

Most men Mr. Cohen's age, which is 77, have retired. But Mr. Cohen, dapper in a navy blue jacket and gray pants, said he has no intention of quitting. "My father-in-law did not quit until he was in his early 90s and had a stroke," he said. That was in the mid-1970s.

"My friends have retired, and they tell me to come to Florida and play golf. I've never picked up a golf club in my life," he said. "I did all my hobbies when I was a kid: photography, woodworking, mechanical work, fishing."

The Cohen children are successful professionals. Dr. Jeffrey Cohen is an optometrist with several offices in Harford County. Dr. Howell Cohen, also an optometrist, works in Florida. Lisa Cohen Feldman is a retired fashion designer living in New York.

Mrs. Feldman sees no future for the clothing store. "None of the immediate family is interested in it," she said.

Dr. Jeffrey Cohen worked in his father's store after school. But even then, he said, he and his brother, Howell, were leaning more toward the professions than toward tailoring.

"It makes me sad to think there won't be a third generation to carry on the family business," he said.

Dr. Cohen said he doubts that his father will ever retire, but he said there could come a time when the family might decide to run the business through its employees.

Local customers, such as Bel Air attorney Stanley Getz, said they would be sorry if the shop should close.

Mr. Getz said he and his brothers have been buying their suits at Hirsch's for about 50 years. "They are the only shop I know of that carries extra-long suits." The Getz brothers range in height from 6 feet to 6 feet 6, he said.

Mr. Getz remembers when Harford County residents came to the town on Friday night or Saturday morning and did all their shopping within a few blocks.

Hirsch's Men's Store was sandwiched between Bata Shoe, which went out of business, and Woolworth's, which moved to a mall.

Only a few original stores besides Hirsch's remain on Main Street in Bel Air: Lutz's Inc., an appliance store; Boyd & Fulford Drugs; and Harrison's Paint Center. Courtland Hardware abandoned its old store with its wooden floor and ceiling fans for a new shop -- with its own parking lot -- a block over on Bond Street. Preston's Stationery Inc. moved several blocks north and built a new store with plenty of parking.

Mr. Cohen said his store survived the Main Street exodus because he carries so many sizes.

"At the malls, you can't get any thing bigger than a 46," he said. Mr. Cohen said he can tailor clothes for tall men, short men or stout men, and doesn't charge for alterations. And he says his prices are 20 percent lower.

There have also been other changes.

nTC Men dress less formally now, often choosing jeans or sweat clothes over three-piece suits with a white shirt and tie.

And Mr. Cohen no longer advertises in local publications except for holidays or at prom time.

"It used to be that if you could get a young man for a tuxedo; he'd come back for an interview suit and more suits once he landed a job. I've got customers who are 50 years old who came to me that way," he said.

But young men need more than just a tuxedo; they need directions, Mr. Cohen said. "No one knows where Main Street is," said.

A lack of parking on Main Street and the construction of Bel Air Plaza in the mid-1960s and Harford Mall in 1972 drained away Main Street businesses.

During the 1980s, Main Street was upgraded with new sidewalks, and vacant buildings were reborn as office space for lawyers or restaurants. A large garage solved some of the parking problem.

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