He has really helped clean up this town Retirement: After 50 years of selling and fixing appliances in Baltimore, vacuum cleaner repair specialist Donald Miller is kicking the dust off his heels and closing his Mulberry Street business.

February 04, 1997|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A downtown Baltimore business that has been cleaning up the area for decades is about to bite the dust.

Donald Miller, a master mechanic who can make a stuttering vacuum cleaner roar like a typhoon, is retiring. Customers wince at the thought that this broom closet specialist won't be there to dispense rare spare parts and a knowledge of what makes their cherished 1961 Hoover so reliable.

After 50 years in a trade he began when he was 18, he's stopped accepting new work. He hopes to be out of his stuffed, packed and cluttered Mulberry Street shop within a month, maybe two, certainly in time for spring housecleaning.

It's ironic that a man who has spent his career keeping other people's homes clean should work in this cavern of aged soot and seemingly disorganized clutter, a mechanical archive of hoses, cords, switches, belts and armatures. The name on the 319 W. Mulberry St. shop says Miller Appliance Co., but its customers know better. This is the Mayo Clinic for dead and diseased vacuum cleaners.

If you count the time his father put in the mechanical cleaning business, the Millers (father and son) have 105 years selling, but mainly repairing, countless Hoovers, Electroluxes, Royals, Dirt Devils and Eurekas. When Don Miller locks the store's door for the last time, he will retire to his Lutherville home, where he vows to complete the restoration of his 1948 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet.

"He's the dean of this industry. There's nobody in this town that has been around as long as Miller Appliance," said Mike Muth, vice president of Colgate Hardware in Dundalk, a shop that also specializes in vacuum cleaner repairing. "It would be also safe to say that there is nobody in this town who has a greater knowledge and experience."

Family business

That learning came with his father, the late Donald Miller Sr., who began work with Hoover Co. about 1923. He was initially in sales and had an office in the old Pythian Castle building, Charles and Preston streets. It now houses Crestar Bank.

"My father and I would take his Packard and drive up to Wilmington and bring back used Hoovers, trade-ins. We'd stack them in the trunk and on the back seat. We'd tie them to the running board. Then we repaired them at our house, 1835 Bolton St. We had a small elevator so we could send parts down from the third floor and do the work in the basement," he said.

Sometime in the late 1930s, his father quit Hoover and set out on his own, opening the present Mulberry Street location. At first he sold washing machines, radios and other household appliances. But the vacuum was his first love, and its smooth operation was his specialty.

The Millers learned that the owners of vacuum cleaners are loyal. They will go to extremes to keep their favorite machines running.

"People come in and they really don't like leaving a vacuum with you. It's like leaving your child," said Arvetta Miller, who works alongside her husband most days. She sits in the front and takes most of the phone calls -- calls that come in on the firm's three lines.

Efficiency experts might frown on this communication system, one that involves no less than six separate listings in the current Yellow Pages.

Her husband works in the back, behind the 50 or so upright machines that he's promised owners he'll service before he turns the lock in the front door for the final time.

Miller Appliance seems to thrive on its little idiosyncrasies. Damp plaster chunks are falling on the west wall. The basement is virtually impassable, a boneyard of battered canisters and uprights. Miller says the second floor is worse.

Customers come in and ask for outdated parts. Miller combs through old mayonnaise jars full of metal tidbits. More often than not, he comes up with what they are looking for. Then they ask for a simple request: some new vacuum bags.

Now that's a problem. Not available. They might be back in stock in a few weeks.

Sweeping up customers

The customer base is diverse. The repaired machines list addresses from Division Street and from Harford County.

A Guilford matron with a fancy all-metal Royal (it cost about $900 new) comes in. Then a man who does volunteer work wants a part for a machine that takes a battering at the day care center his Severna Park Baptist church runs. Over the years, the shop has built a number of other city church contacts.

Miller-serviced vacuums keep the main offices of the Baltimore Orioles clean. They also lift the crumbs from the floors of local restaurants.

When these cleaners ingest too many coins, nails, marbles, screws or stones, they break their fans and get sent to this sick bay for wounded vacuums. And there the final 50 sit, row after row, their upright handles tagged with the owners' names.

"I used to think the vacuums danced at night after we left the store," the owner's wife said.

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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