Corner store a Canton fixture for 50 years

June 12, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

The little shop at Linwood and Foster avenues will always be Miss Bertha's.

It's 50 years old this month and officially called Cwiek's Dry Goods, but don't try telling that to its generations of satisfied customers. Many lined up at the shop's doors Friday and Saturday for the annual sidewalk sale.

"I never thought in a million years that my wife and I would ever wind up running this place, but look at me," said Melvin Cwiek, son of the woman who founded this quintessential corner store.

"I can tell you where I was. I was in the Army Air Corps. It was Scott Field, Illinois. My mother wrote me and said, 'When you're coming home, go to a new place. I've opened a store.' That was June 1945," he said.

It took him another two years to be discharged from the service. By that time his mother, Bertha Cwiek, had a flourishing business. She sold house dresses, pajamas, handkerchiefs and underwear. Come the late winter and spring, she had racks of lacy white First Communion dresses for the girls at the area's Catholic parishes: St. Casimir, St. Brigid, St. Elizabeth and Sacred Heart of Jesus.

"My mother was a one-of-a-kind person. She ran the store with no help. And she had a captive audience. She spoke Polish and a lot of her customers were Polish-speaking," her son said.

"She was popular with the salesmen who called on her. She was witty. She could hold her own. She wouldn't take goods they tried to push on her. She knew what she could sell. And she always paid her bills on time. The salesmen respected her for that," he added.

Melvin Cwiek had no intention of taking over the store in a 15-foot-wide rowhouse, a little place with a front window trimmed in 1910-era stained glass panels.

After World War II he studied at the University of Maryland and became an industrial engineer. He and his wife Dorothy settled in Morrisville, Pa. He worked for U.S. Steel, while she ran a branch office of a savings and loan.

"I was forced to retire in 1982 when it was fashionable in the steel industry to close U.S. plants. Three months later my mother died.

"I came back to Baltimore to settle her estate and said to myself, 'You're not getting me into this city, back into a rowhouse.' Well, you can see what happened. Dorothy took over the business and I help out. . . . We remodeled the living quarters and upgraded our lines of clothing. We learned the business real fast," he said.

The business, he and his wife soon learned, operates under the theory that local is best. They cater to the needs of an elderly population who aren't concerned about styles, except for the clothes the grandmothers buy for their grandchildren.

"They might spend $15 on a garment for themselves but they will buy a $175 dress coat for their granddaughter," he said.

The shop also sells the cotton duster, a housecoat staple of East Baltimore summertime wear.

The real secret to the store's longevity and success is the personality of the women who have run it.

"My mother knew all her customers. And so does my wife Dorothy. Sometimes I think she's running more of a confessional booth than selling clothes. She listens to everybody. She prays. She's always giving out holy pictures," Mr. Cwiek said.

Indeed. This is one of the few stores in Baltimore where a placard for the Divine Mercy devotions is larger than the requisite decal for Visa credit cards.

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