Goodbye, Mather's Retailing: Westminster shop's demise symbolizes the plight of small local businesses.

November 12, 1996

WESTMINSTER'S T. W. Mather & Sons has been a relic for some years now -- a vestige of life before suburbanization drove businesses out of towns and cities to malls and megastores, an anachronism amid retail giants and perpetual discounts.

Local Baltimore area department stores have been dropping like pins in a dressing room for more than two decades. Hochschild's, Hutzler's, Stewart's -- all dead. Woodward & Lothrop, the classy Washington store with a mall-anchor location in Parole, went down fighting last year. Through all this, Mather's -- smaller than any of them -- refused to budge, staying firmly put in its dignified, two-story Main Street home while other merchants headed for the security of Cranberry Mall or some high-traffic spot on Route 140.

Two weeks ago, orange going-out-of-business signs replaced Mather's pretty window displays. Bargain-seekers descended on what had been a gentle, genteel store. The TV crews showed up, sensing a watershed moment, a chance to document the last goodbye to stores with creaky wooden floors and stairs instead of elevators. Now it's final. We Americans don't shop that way any more. We scan the Sunday circulars and roam the aisles of Target and the various -Marts, where the volume of business allows prices a small store such as Mather's could never afford. Or, we go to the mall, a windowless world under one roof, with plenty of parking and a red-dot sale every week. Or we shop TV catalogs at midnight.

Malls and big-box stores have brought consumers good things: lower prices, mind-boggling selection, the convenience of being able to get everything we want or need in one stop. But they drain the life out of downtowns, too.

Mather's was unique. Established in 1890, it was for many decades the focal point of Westminster's downtown. For the past 20 years or so, it has provided an alternative to mall shopping -- manageably small, with high-quality merchandise, a great children's department and a charming plank-floored upstairs housewares section. The owners, I. Manning Parsons and his sister Polly Nelson, and the sales clerks were familiar and liked. The store was rather like an old friend.

They aren't making them like that any more.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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