We bargain-hunters always look on the cheap side Frugality: It's de rigueur in Baltimore to avoid ever paying full price, or any price, for that matter.

July 11, 1998|By JACQUES KELLY

THE OTHER DAY I walked into a downtown drugstore and noticed vacancies on the shelves -- holes where there would normally be merchandise. You don't have to be a retail analyst to know what had happened. These items were advertised as being a few cents off in Sunday's newspaper. It was Tuesday at noon, and the price locusts had struck.

Baltimore loves a bargain. That's another way of saying we're a cheap town, the proverbial nickel city. I know coupons and sales are popular everywhere. But Baltimoreans mark their calendars for days when the price of a tube of toothpaste falls 22 cents. Maybe it's because people here work so hard that they understand the value of a dollar.

A friend from Iowa thought my judgment on our financial sensibilities was a bit harsh until he saw for himself. He was walking though a White Marsh discount store on a Saturday afternoon when he noticed a couple shopping. The man reached for a bottle of contact-lens solution. His wife stopped him, saying, "Wait, it goes on sale after midnight." She'd gone over the Sunday ads already, and had mentally placed her bets.

There's a welcome side to our low-rent status. You don't have to worry about wearing expensive clothes or designer labels. Nobody does. High fashion and trends die a speedy death here. Didn't Saks Fifth Avenue at Owings Mills go packing?

A young colleague was finishing up a good lunch at Marconi's restaurant this week. The waiter came for the coffee order. He asked for a latte. Not at Marconi's. Costly trends in cuisine are not tolerated. Deluxe cars? Forget it. If it moves at all, it's fine for Baltimore. Owning a bottom-of-the line auto will never be held against you here.

Many years ago I used to get annoyed at Baltimore's steerage-class ways. Then I grew up. It's great not to have to bother about $250 shoes and $500 suits. Rent control? Who needs it here? I've joined the Cheap Club, an organization where it's considered good form to complain loudly about the cost of ballgames, concerts, plays or anything else that strikes you as possessing a fat price tag.

I've also become a spectator at its events. I've watched people fight over marked-down Waterford crystal pieces at Value City. I've noticed blue bloods ordering their daughters' wedding cakes at Graul's Market because its bakery does a good job at a good price. I've watched people hand-deliver bills to BGE or Sears to beat the cost of a 32-cent stamp. And, because I'm a member in good standing, I do the same thing.

You can always spot out-of-towners when they arrive here and start behaving in ways that betray their origins. I heard a woman describe the months of tedium she'd suffered as she opened and closed the door for the plumbers, painters and electricians who were renovating the house she'd bought. She went on about its ancient plumbing and the physical conditions that didn't suit her. A few days later I ran into a real estate agent who was familiar with the property. "What was wrong with it?" he inquired. Everybody lives with 1929 plumbing here. When it breaks, then you fix it.

Baltimore's financial ways remind me of a twist on the motto of Maryland's famous Carroll Family. Their motto is, "Anywhere, so long as there be freedom." But a member of that esteemed family confided that the line might well be: "Anything, as long as it's free."

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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