Preserved in aspic Genteel, tax-exempt At the Woman's Industrial Exchange, no one would dream of changing a thing. Business is "Baltimore the way it was."

November 09, 1995|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

One of the state secrets of downtown Baltimore can now be exposed.

The waitresses and saleswomen at the Woman's Industrial Exchange have released their ages.

The most senior member of the perfectly aproned staff is 94. Four are in their 80s. One each is in her 70s, 60s and 50s.

"We are as famous as the Harvey Girls," said the indomitable Marguerite Schertle, recalling the 1945 Judy Garland movie of women who went west and worked as waitresses. Mrs. Schertle, who brushes off the attention about being the oldest and who may still be the fastest on her feet, has worked the midday lunch trade of the tearoom at Charles and Pleasant streets since the 1950s. She had worked at another Charles Street tearoom since 1915.

Carrie Geraghty, at 87, started waitressing at the old Hochschild-Kohn & Co. tearoom during the Christmas season of 1925.

"I look at it this way. I thank God I'm healthy and can get up each morning," says the great-grandmother, who had five sons.

Her sister, Loretta Tarbert, works alongside her.

The three women must walk the length of the long restaurant so much it's amazing there isn't a path cut in the black-and-white tile floor.

Just as it retains longtime employees, the Woman's Exchange FTC adheres to its own rules of economics. It began as a post-Civil War enterprise so that financially distressed women could make a bit of money from art needlework and handicrafts without having their identities known.

What worked in the 1860s works today. The exchange remains a genteel, tax-exempt, spotless commune wherein the sales of handmade christening dresses and quilts help compensate for the slight losses incurred by the luncheon tomato aspic and chicken salads.

The tearoom patrons leave well fed, the waitresses make their tips, the sales room remains open, the elderly handiwork consignors get paid and the electricity stays on. The rent from five upstairs apartments and a ground-floor jeweler also help keep the books in the black.

"The only thing we can't do is change anything. We'd get letters of protest. We keep it so people can remember Baltimore the way it was," said Conradt (Connie) Boyce Whitescarver, the head of the exchange's 10-member board of managers. Her mother held this position. So did her mother.

The prize for the longest employed exchange lady goes to Phyllis Sanders, who came here straight from vocational school in 1939. For many years she ran the downstairs lunchroom, a businessman's counter below the main tea room now tended by waitress Margaret Brogna.

"I took a little while off to have a baby. That was all," said Mrs. Sanders. Now she tends the little wooden cash desk, which has an adding machine but no register, near the entrance to the tea room.

Another longtime personality here is Wilhelmina Godwin, who works in the salesroom. She scans the newspaper for visiting theatrical celebrities, writes them little notes and invites them to visit the exchange. Her biggest coup was wooing Katharine Hepburn to lunch some 25 years ago.

"You feel cossetted here," said Marla O'Neill, a translator who sat at a table with her husband, Francis.

"We came here when we were courting" several years ago, he said. "I brought Marla in here to show her a real Baltimore institution."

The waitresses know that not everything at the exchange is the way it was when Baltimore's debutantes and their mothers dropped in for a bite to eat during an afternoon's shopping on Charles Street.

"The society people stopped coming years ago. We have business people today for customers. The men have saved us," said Mrs. Schertle.

There have been other changes. The finger bowls disappeared along with the seamstress who came to make the waitresses' dotted Swiss uniforms. The mayonnaise in the salads is no longer homemade. The prices have gone up for lunch, a reality of economics that the waitresses feel has chased away some customers. The Inner Harbor lured many more. So did competition from newer restaurants.

Yet the exchange clings to some amazing practices, most of which the public never sees.

Orders for hot plates get sent down to the basement kitchen via a tin can on a string. Completed platters come up on a hand-operated dumbwaiter. There are no computers or fax machines. Every sales check is handwritten. There is a doorman. And how many menus feature a dessert called Charlotte Russe? (It's $3, made with homemade chocolate sauce, ice cream and layers of cake.)

And recognition and fame carry their requirements.

"I'm tired of those walking tours they bring through here to show us off," said Mrs. Schertle, who has worked here so long she isn't afraid to say what's on her mind. "They walk in here, look around, use the ladies room and don't buy anything." She is also weary of being asked about her brief on-camera appearance with Meg Ryan in the film "Sleepless in Seattle."

"I still get a check every other month, but being in that movie wasn't the only thing I ever did in my life," she said.

Not at all. She still takes two MTA Buses home to Carney (her son drops her off mornings) and enjoys the company of fellow transit riders.

A weekday at the exchange begins at 5:15 a.m. when Dorothea E. Wilson arrives and shuts off the burglar alarm. She is part of the crew the tea room patrons never see. Yet, in many ways, she is pivotal to the operation. She began work here nearly 30 years ago at age 16.

"I'm a one-person assembly line," she said one recent morning as she lifted a panful of golden rolls from one of the ovens.

Well before 6, she has lighted the stoves and gotten the pots of chicken soup going. By 9 each morning she's cooked 70 or so pounds of chicken for salad or pot pies (again, her own homemade crust) or whatever else is on the menu.

"I never measure. I watched my mother. Every time she was in the kitchen I was right there," she said.

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