Whitehouse one of the giants of used clothing business Rags: Leonard Whitehouse was responsible for creating a world trade in secondhand clothing and making Baltimore its capital.

September 28, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Leonard Whitehouse graduated from high school in 1934, desperate for a job. His uncle found him one. But when he got to the Hippodrome Theater, all the ushers' uniforms were too big.

If he hadn't been so short, Leonard Whitehouse would never have become a giant.

Never would have taken that $11-a-week job working for Solomon Schapiro's two oldest boys during the Great Depression. Never would have left the business 13 years later with Sol's third son, Danny, to start their own.

Never would have made old Schapiro & Whitehouse into what was once the largest, classiest secondhand clothes business in the world.

"They are legends," says Elia Clemente, co-owner of a used clothing business in New York. "They were the Tiffany's of the used clothing industry."

Schapiro and Whitehouse sold the business 20 years ago. But Whitehouse, all 79 years of him, is still around, still buying and selling rags, sending clothing from the out-of-the-way places of American cities to out-of-the-way markets of the world. Danny Schapiro, 84, is still around, though his occupation is golf, not used clothes.

Theirs is an untold story about Baltimore's industrial history. About the rag and garment trade, which has long been dismissed as a dirty industry. About a time when Baltimore was No. 1.

"Baltimore used to be the capital of used clothing," says Ed Stubin, a grader and exporter in Brooklyn, N.Y. "And that was because of Schapiro & Whitehouse.

"Everyone in the world knew that corner they were on, Parkin and McHenry."

Whitehouse was just 15 when he was hired by Sol Schapiro and his two oldest sons, Joe and Ben. Back then, used clothing was ripped into rags. Depending on the quality, the rags were used as wipers for machinery or in roofing insulation or paper.

At night, Whitehouse went to law school, earning a degree from the University of Baltimore in 1938, but he could never find a job he liked. After a World War II stint with the Army in California, he returned to S. Schapiro and Sons.

There, the third brother, Danny Schapiro, was antsy and resolved to start his own business. Danny and Leonard quit in 1947, not sure what they would do.

"Starting the business was pretty stupid of us," Schapiro says. "We sat in the breakfast room of my house on Dorchester Road and talked until we figured out what to do."

Schapiro handled the rag part of the business. Whitehouse focused on building customers in a new trade: secondhand clothing.

Middle Easterners, Whitehouse learned, would buy men's jackets and shirts. In search of foreign markets, he took the first of many trips to Africa in the early 1950s.

Back in Baltimore, Schapiro & Whitehouse created a model grading operation. Clothes, which the company purchased from charities, were meticulously graded by quality, color and type.

"They were so good at this, that if you wanted Schapiro & Whitehouse to give you light blue long-sleeve shirts with the left button missing, they could do it," says Al Wilson, who works as a clothing broker for Goodwill Industries and other charities in Atlanta.

By the 1960s, Schapiro & Whitehouse were grading a million pounds a week, which made them easily the nation's biggest grading operation. Charities such as the Salvation Army, which usually insisted on receiving cash for their raw material, extended them credit and offered their grudging admiration.

"They would always find a way to pay a penny or two less for our stuff than everyone else," says Salvation Army Col. Raymond Howell.

Working there was difficult, but the company's willingness to hire inexperienced people, many of them African-American laborers, is still fondly remembered.

Patricia Belton sorted clothing for the firm from 1964, when she arrived in Baltimore from South Carolina at age 18, until 1985. And she still remembers the awful smell of the unsorted bales when they were opened for grading.

"A couple of times, there were dead dogs, dead cats, unspeakables inside the bales," says Belton, now 50. "But they were good people, and they paid you for the work you did."

By the early 1970s, both men were approaching their 60s. Schapiro's children didn't seem interested in the business. In the mid-1970s they decided to sell out, though not without regrets.

"I loved the business," says Schapiro. "We made friendships all over the world." Under new ownership, the business went bankrupt in 1985.

And Whitehouse was hired by Melvin Paul, the bankruptcy trustee, to assist him in collecting overseas accounts. "We went to Africa, and it was amazing -- everyone knew him," says Paul. "People would come running out of the bush and welcome him like an old friend."

By that time, Whitehouse's wife had died. With little to do, he decided to get back into the business as a broker, buying and selling rags from a Pikesville office.

He is also a mentor to Baltimore's two surviving grading companies. The men who run Clo-Tex International and Row Clothing are both former Schapiro & Whitehouse employees.

"A lot of us stole ideas from that old company to put into our operations," says John Cross Sr., chairman of Clo-Tex. "Schapiro & Whitehouse was a training ground for many people, including me."

Three years ago, with his old partner long retired and having just turned 75, Whitehouse successfully recruited a new partner in hopes of keeping the brokerage business alive after his death.

"Leonard kept saying, 'You have to come and take a look at what I'm doing,' " says Billy Schapiro, the grand-nephew of Danny, who was working in another part of the textile trade.

"And I did. Leonard opened up this whole new world for me, the used clothing business."

Pub Date: 9/09/99

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