Tuesday's windstorm destroyed a part of the garment TTC industry

March 15, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

BY THE TIME I arrived at the wreckage of what had been the Morton Schenk Co., the place resembled London after the bombing.

News reports said a windstorm knocked down the east side of the building on Tuesday morning. The city condemned the west side, the place where 110 years ago H. L. Mencken's father and uncle manufactured cigars.

It was a sad sight -- and not only because a city treasure lay in ruins.

I'd been coming to this tailors' supply store since the 1950s, when my grandmother and her sister would have me in tow on the days they called at 410 W. Baltimore St. We'd stay for what seemed like hours, although it was probably 20 minutes.

Lily Rose and Cora were fastidious about dressmaking. Schenk's was their destination when they needed a specific item. They relied upon its authoritative inventory -- the faintly iridescent buttons, or the medium belt buckle, or whatever it took to make an outfit.

For example, when Aunt Cora decreed that I needed a tweed suit for kindergarten (short pants, of course), she let me pick the buttons from the cabinets at Schenk's. Of course, the selection was strongly guided by her directives.

When I was in the third grade, Schenk's played a role in an important project at the old Baltimore Academy of the Visitation. My teacher that year was a cloistered nun, Sister Marie Therese.

She didn't leave the grounds on shopping trips, and asked if her students could find quarter-inch pins for a bulletin-board project she had in mind.

No request from the nuns was too large -- or small -- but the request for quarter-inch pins nearly unfastened my mother. No five-and-dime, no notions counter stocked the miniature pins Sister Therese wanted.

Then my mother called upon Schenk's -- and brought home a cardboard box full with a half-pound of quarter-inch pins.

Sister Therese was delighted.

So was I on the Monday after the big December mothers' club tea. Sister Therese had transformed her classroom into a dyed-cheesecloth-and-painted-brown-paper representation of Bethlehem, with hills, sky and manger all held tightly in place by Schenk's unseen quarter-inch pins.

Schenk's was one of those stores that was the ultimate source. This was where the professional garment industry placed its orders. The few dollars we spent there amounted to nothing on the day's tab. I'm sure the patient clerks who waited on our trio in 1954 counted us as very small change.

The old first floor had high ceilings. Maybe because it faced south -- with big glass windows -- the sales area seemed hot. Maybe my patience frayed on the days when grandmother and Aunt Cora came to choose buttons.

The old garment district wasn't as much fun as Lexington or Howard streets, the retail rialtos in those days. This was the wholesale district. There were no fancy show windows. The freight elevators didn't have bells that rang sonorously as they approached a floor.

Over the years, my patience increased, and I grew to admire the Schenk family's attitude about Baltimore and its business.

Schenk's never fled the old neighborhood. It never went yuppie. It just stayed, steadfastly offering the tailoring supplies it knew so well. There were no fancy plaques about the store's historic cast-iron facades. There was no advertising. Schenk's remained unchanged by time.

On my last trip to the store five weeks ago, Mrs. Morton Schenk stood at the time-stained counter of the business her husband founded in 1928. Her son Victor, who ran daily operations, couldn't believe the mayor and governor wanted to restore the Hippodrome Theatre -- a plan that meant his property might be condemned.

Then came Tuesday morning's winds, and that dilemma became moot.

I recently found my grandmother's button box. It's a pasteboard candy box from Hochschild Kohn, and it's heavy. I'd bet half all of those loose and rattling discs came from Schenk's.

She couldn't make herself throw away all those orphaned buttons. Neither could my mother. I can't seem to do it, either.

I just stashed it in the cellar. After all, what good is paying a mortgage if you can't mothball your grandmother's button box full of all the mismatched pearl dots so purposefully selected?

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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