Before we had warehouse stores we had bargain basements

March 30, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

MAYBE IT was the poplin suit I got for Easter 1965 that makes me associate this time of the year with below-ground shopping. The basements of Baltimore's vanished downtown department stores housed what were politely called budget stores, featuring overloaded tables, stuffed racks, cut-rate prices and singing cash registers.

Occasionally some copy writer would get carried away, as one did in an ad for the long-gone Bernheimer-Leader budget basement: "Below the street, but above the level."

Nobody was fooled. And nobody bragged about a suit or hat from Bernheimer's basement.

The basements in the downtown stores were a little drab. They were not meant to compete with the departments on the upper floors, where the goods were priced higher and displayed in well-lighted, less frenetic and occasionally stylish settings.

My award for the basement with the most character went to Hochschild Kohn. Technically, this was not a budget store, but a housewares-hardware department. The low-price, ready-to-wear section was around the corner on Eutaw Street.

Hochschild's basement possessed solid character. It had wooden floors that creaked underfoot; a section of their maple surface was cleaned and refinished, I think, as a promotion for a finish the store was selling. It looked funny, a strip of clean, blond wood running alongside floors that had seen 60 years of foot pounding that turned the aisles the color of strong tea.

The Hochschild's basement seemed more like a real Baltimore cellar. It was properly cut up, divided by partitions, posts and columns. Like any good basement, it was filled with clutter. Not dirt, but amiable clutter -- pots, pans, cabinets full of embroidery thread, inexpensive tablecloths, phonograph records and scissors displays. At times a noisy paint-mixing machine would start vibrating, drowning out the ever-repeating ping-ping-ping sound of the store call bell.

Hochschild's basement had its own post office, too, an efficient counter where you could mail packages and buy stamps. Workers were forever pushing noisy metal carts of packages through; when it got busy, which was often, the place seemed like a coal mine.

The May Co.'s basement was large and deep. A long escalator ride took you into those depths, brightly lighted by a ceiling full of fluorescent tubes. You could get a sunburn from that glare. This functionalism didn't appeal to me.

Hutzler's basement was the most confusing. In nearly 35 years ** of taking the down escalator, I could still get a little bit disoriented by the warren of chambers beneath the various buildings. Somehow, however, I could always locate the basement's luncheonette.

Baltimoreans lapse into reveries about Hutzler's sixth-floor tearoom (its proper name was the Colonial), but if you coax them to be honest, they'll talk more about the fare in the basement.

In order of importance, the dishes that Baltimoreans venerated were the chicken chow mein, the cheese bread and the vegetable soup. The fruit salad, the carrot mold and the chocolate sodas weren't bad, either. The Wellesley fudge cake was rarely available here. That was upstairs cuisine.

The floor in the luncheonette was made of pink terrazzo, material that held the sound of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's trains that traversed the Howard Street Tunnel buried just outside the store's front doors. It was a dull, low rumble, but there was no mistaking that sound. I often wondered if the passengers on the Titanic experienced the same sensation when the mighty liner struck the iceberg as the lunchers did when a long coal train went through.

One end of this basement had a curious passageway, an underground tunnel open to shoppers that connected with the store's building on the other side of Saratoga Street. This tunnel was a popular way of gaining access to the parking garage.

Gutman's, at Park and Lexington, was a lower-price store. It had a basement, and a well-designed one, but what I recall was the 4-cent table. It was a large counter where everything was 4 cents. There were spools of thread and cards of pins and little glass animals. These pelicans, chickens and rabbits were handblown, made by some worker in some country where the U.S. dollar had a lot of clout.

And while we're talking basements, we should also talk people. The basements were democratic spots wherein all sorts of people shopped -- black and white (although certainly the eating facilities were segregated until the early 1960s), the immigrant alongside the Daughter of the American Revolution.

If you wanted snooty shopping, you went elsewhere, maybe upstairs, probably to the suburbs. What you didn't reveal to your friends was the fact this year's Easter outfit came from Bernheimer's basement.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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