McCrory decides to close last Lexington dime store

July 17, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

McCrory's Lexington Street store, the survivor of what was once a strip of five-and-dimes, is closing in the middle of August.

"Business has slowed down quite a bit in the last year or two. I'd say that 95 per cent of our customers are senior citizens. As they pass on, the business goes," said Charles Jones, a shoe repair man in the McCrory basement store who has worked at downtown cobbler's shops all his life.

The store's employees were notified of the company decision earlier this month.

At their peak in the 1940s, downtown five-and-dimes gave Lexington Street a bustling vitality. They sold everything from spools of cotton thread to inexpensive kitchen curtains, waste paper baskets and mass-produced toys.

When March brought warmer days, merchants set up stands of flowers outside these variety stores. There would be Easter lilies, Mother's Day orchids, flats of summer petunias and Christmas poinsettias.

The stores were also wildly popular with Baltimore's budget-conscious shoppers. Many a downtown shopping outing NTC included a hot dog lunch at one of the dime store food counters.

The McCrory branch opened with fanfare in 1929 just as the Baltimore Trust Company (now NationsBank) building was being completed.

The store had dark wood counters all neatly partitioned with glass separators between the hairpins and hairnets. There were overhead paddle fans and white glass electric light globes. The floors were polished hard maple. On the second floor was a large Asian restaurant called The Celestial. In time, McCrory's took over that space.

The L-shaped establishment was one of the busiest on the street. Customers could enter from either Howard Street or Lexington. It has three floors reached by escalators.

"The big thing for kids was in the basement -- the pet department," said Orem (Jerry) Wahl, a Calvert Street resident who owns an art gallery and picture framing shop on Chase Street. "I remember there was a whole wall of fish tanks and buying a goldfish in a bowl for 15 cents. It might be dead by the time you got it home on a bus to East Baltimore."

,.5l He recalled the basement had another one of its walls lined with rolls of linoleum.

"People would have it cut to fit their kitchens. They would carry these long rolls right through the store," he said.

McCrory's Lexington Street entrance often provided good retail theater.

Even in the store's final weeks, there was a man stationed at the door demonstrating a rug shampoo product. He had a carpet square stained the color of charcoal which the cleaning product restored to a bright yellow.

"It's a miracle," the store demonstrator called out in praise of the cleaner. But the shoppers perspiring on a humid July afternoon did not seem to be particularly caught up in thoughts of heavy housework.

"The one I remember years ago was the man who sold chameleons in a box. The chameleons were chained at the neck and had a safety pin at the other end. The idea was you chained the thing to whatever outfit you were wearing and watched it change colors," Orem Wahl said.

The inexpensive McCrory's lunch trade ended last January when the snack bar closed. Parts of the store have long been leased out to other vendors. The basement shoe repair stand remains independent of McCrory ownership.

The smell of shoe polish and pet supplies remain distinctive odors in this part of the store. At various times, the first floor was scented with popcorn oil and chocolate from the candy and confection counter.

Lexington Street once had as many as eight competing dime stores. There was the Grand F&W (subsequently H.L. Green) at 11 W. Lexington; S.S. Kresge at 113; Schulte United at 215; W.T. Grant at 216; F.W. Woolworth at 221; J.G. McCrory at 227; Silver's at 315; and G.C. Murphy at 321.

The dime stores traded off the Howard Street department stores for business and the department stores likewise drew customers from Lexington Street.

In 1977, the Hochschild-Kohn department store closed its Howard and Lexington operation. It took nearly 15 years for the other big stores to shut down, a period when the long-established five-and-dimes tried to stay in business. One by one, they closed until McCrory's emerged as the survivor.

Then a few days ago came the signs. The shoppers were informed they had to pay off and pick up their layaways.

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