Customers debate which Eddie's is best Old, new groceries just two miles apart have their fans, critics

December 25, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Some say there is only one Eddie's of Roland Park -- even though there are really two.

What they mean is that only one of the two gourmet grocery stores -- only two miles apart -- is close to the collective heart of the North Baltimore neighborhood. That's the older one on Roland Avenue, which opened in 1953.

By contrast, the spiffy "new" Eddie's on North Charles Street, over the line in Baltimore County, strikes some of the Roland Park guard as vaguely nouveau riche, though they are too polite to say so directly.

But don't get them started unless you have time to talk about the world of difference between the "old" and the "new" Eddie's, which opened five years ago.

Both stores are packed during the holiday rush by frantic shoppers searching for everything from risotto cakes to orange glazed roast duck. The stores have become a tradition for area residents putting on dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The passion of those who champion the original Eddie's points ** to how closely a neighborhood clings to a center in an age when the notion of community is often preached more than it is practiced.

The owner of both Eddie's stores, Nancy Cohen, says she's perplexed by the sides customers take between one and the other.

"The philosophy behind both stores is the same," she says. "Service, continuity, familiarity." But, she adds, "I'm glad people feel that strongly."

The differences might be summarized in a single detail: the door. At the old store, someone opens it for customers, a quaint custom that has not been abandoned. At the new one, the door opens automatically, as at any other modern supermarket.

Another difference, which no service philosophy can explain, is what sells. At the original Eddie's, ham salad sandwiches are a favorite, but, says a manager, "People on Charles Street say, 'What's that?' "

On the other hand, the store on Charles can't keep enough low-fat coleslaw on the shelves, but it's not even stocked at Roland Avenue.

The old Eddie's has something that money can't buy or build, the feeling of an old-fashioned neighborhood store. In a centennial drawing of Roland Park, it is defined as "the center of the universe."

A new school of thought called "communitarianism" is in vogue in Washington. It stresses preserving villagelike connections to neighbors, friends and schools even as American life becomes more suburbanized, busy and detached from small-town ways of socializing.

The concept is alive and well on Roland Avenue. While other ties that bind are loosening, the original Eddie's across the street from the library still laces pretty tightly around Roland Park.

"Eddie's hearkens back to the old days when people used to shop every day because of no freezers and no preservatives," says Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociology professor who lives in Roland Park. "It reproduces that for people who are too busy otherwise to experience a sense of community."

Says Jack Schafer, manager of the old Eddie's: "Some people come in three times a day. It's not unusual for customers to spend an hour and a half."

Customers are shopping for more than a loaf of bread or quart of milk. They seek a place where their names or faces are known, where they might meet an old friend or a casual acquaintance.

"The hominess is really one of the main things," says Betsy Scott, a resident of Roland Park for 17 years. "People at Eddie's know their customers, their children and everything about them."

As if to illustrate the point, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., 30, stood at the salad bar known as "Michael's" helping himself one lunchtime. He grew up in Guilford and attended Boys' Latin School.

"There are people here who remember me since I was a little kid at the candy counter," he says.

The familiar greeting shoppers get at a place like Eddie's matters "more so now than ever," says Bill Magruder, a real estate agent in Roland Park. "Nobody has any time anymore, and you just want someone to be nice."

There are scenes at the store that would not transpire without a history and word of mouth. For example, when Frances Kleinman came in one morning, she was greeted warmly by cashier Sherrie Sobol, who asked her how she was doing.

"She did that because my daughter [Sheila Sachs] told her I had cataract surgery," says Kleinman.

Says Sally Crosland, who was accompanying Kleinman: "They treat you like family. It makes you come back."

The customers also make the employees feel valued.

"When my husband died, I got cards and flowers from customers," says Dorothy "Dot" Sherman, who has been a checker at the old Eddie's for 23 years.

At both stores, clerks offer to help customers load groceries into their cars, which takes visitors from out of town by surprise.

Some prefer the newer store, which tends to attract younger families with professional parents.

"Parking is easier here," says Nancy Fink, 45, an epidemiologist shopping at 7 p.m. on a weekday, when the other Eddie's closes. "And it's brighter and newer."

But she and others do not speak with the same devotion displayed by defenders of the original

Eddie's, who kicked up a storm when the new store opened, because, says Cohen, they were afraid the old one would close.

"Something has to be developed over a period of years," says Schafer, "before it's as homey as this store."

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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