They came from as far as California, Hawaii, Texas, even the Dominican Republic, to see each other one more time, to recall fond memories, to hug and kiss and shed a few tears.
From sales associates to stock boys, not to mention buyers, executives, waitresses and clerk-typists, more than 600 people crowded the ballroom last night at the Holiday Inn in Timonium for what many said was a long overdue party.
It was a "family reunion" of sorts: All were former employees of Hutzler's, the beloved and distinctly Baltimore retailing institution that closed its doors for good nearly six years ago.
"You wouldn't believe the loyalty these people had for such a minimal wage," marveled Dan Sachs, a Hutzler's executive for 24 years. "I'd go back there in a minute if it could go back to how it was."
The Hutzler's they recalled was the city's fashion center, a chain of family-owned department stores where service was a specialty long before anyone had heard of the West Coast's Nordstrom, and where ladies wore hats and white gloves to visit hTC the Art Moderne "palace," the old downtown store on Howard Street.
But if many Baltimoreans over the age of 30 long for Hutzler's cheese bread or Lady Baltimore cake, the people who worked there miss it even more. Organizers of last night's reunion said they had to turn people away because it was getting too large for the motel's facilities.
"You weren't just a number like you are everywhere you work now," said Connie Tracey of Linthicum, a 30-year Hutzler's veteran now working as a bank clerk. "You felt honored when you told people you worked at Hutzler's."
The idea for the reunion came from Mr. Sachs and Patricia Krasowski, who spent nine years as a bridal buyer at the downtown store and another nine as a sales associate in White Marsh. The two ran into each other regularly at the Woodward & Lothrop store in White Marsh Mall where Ms. Krasowski worked.
"I'd say, 'Danny, we really need to get a reunion because I run into people from Hutzler's all the time in the mall,' " recalled Ms. Krasowski, a Perry Hall resident. "Well, we started planning in February, and it turned out to be a lot like planning a wedding and being in bridal -- I had some expertise in that area."
They turned to Hannah Mazo of Mount Washington, who still had a list of employee names and addresses from her days as a Hutzler's personnel manager. About 1,500 people were contacted; only a few couldn't be found.
"I guess somewhere deep in the back of my mind, I had a feeling we all might get back together again," said Ms. Mazo, who spent 27 years with the company. "The people were always very special."
Tickets were $35 each and included a buffet dinner and disc jockey, but most people just wanted to talk. Two rooms were set aside for Hutzler's memorabilia, including sets of shopping bags in mint condition, and in-house magazines and "Tips and Taps" bulletins reminding clerks to wear hose but not sleeveless blouses. There were 300 photographs and newspaper clippings covering much of the company's 132-year history. Merchandise on display ranged from a stylish 1930s lady's hat still in its box to 1987's promotional stuffed "Bawlmer Bear."
"I look at all this stuff, and I look back," said Ms. Krasowski, 48, who prepared the display. "It took me hours longer than it should have to put this together because I wanted to read everything."
Members of the Hutzler family were on hand to welcome their former employees by name much as they did years ago. The guests had been asked in advance to write down their favorite memories -- the Hutzler's family touch proved a common theme.
"No matter what your job was you felt you were important," said Mr. Sachs, 60, who met his wife Sue, a sportswear buyer, at Hutzler's. "It was like a home away from home."
Part of the Hutzler's allure is that the store's heydays in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s reflected a better time for Baltimore retailing. Howard Street was a bustling shopping district with neighboring Stewart's, Hochschild-Kohn and Brager-Gutman's thriving as well.
Gone are the days when you could order a needle and thread at the downtown Hutzler's and have that less-than-a-dollar order delivered to your home by truck the same day. Rarely will you find a doorman at a suburban mall, certainly not like the one at Hutzler's who would hail you a cab.
"We're now in the era of the outlet store and the superstore," said Albert "Jiggs" Hutzler III, a former Hutzler's vice-president and now a stockbroker in Palm Beach, Fla. "There was a great family feeling and a great tradition in Baltimore for many, many years. You still feel it today."