Situation that can't be fixed Competition: Montebello Plumbing & Hardware, a last resort for home repairs, is being squeezed out of business by large competitors.

August 07, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Many a hapless do-it-yourselfer has sought the free advice and help at the back counter of Northeast Baltimore's Montebello Plumbing & Hardware, but time is running out for them. The home-repair hospital of last resort is closing whenever its last spigot sells.

"It took five years to get here," said Brian S. Lawless, 44, of his store, a business that is regionally legendary for its amazing inventory of the metal things that keep temperamental 1910 radiator systems happily hissing.

Lawless, who runs the business with his wife, Helen, explained that while customers still brought him their antiquated faucets and broken toilets, they have been shopping elsewhere in the 1990s for new water heaters, power lawn mowers and garbage disposals. It was these higher-ticket goods that had provided a cushion of profit for the store to remain open.

"It's a classic Wal-Mart situation where a large firm comes to an area with lower costs," said Michael Anikeeff, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Berman Real Estate Institute. "[Lawless] is obviously a very independent entrepreneur. It would be great having a person like him offering a course at a community college."

Lawless said they're not rolling over. "We still sell some salvaged iron radiators for $12 a rib. I have a plastic tip on one of my fingers to prove how heavy they are," Lawless said of an accident in which one of the heaters toppled onto his hand.

Lawless, whom customers revere as their Baltimore version of television's home fixer Bob Vila, was trained as a plumber -- but never got his license.

Instead, he offers advice on broken plumbing parts, window sash weights, pocket door tracks and rusty screens.

"Other places might say they thread pipe, but mine works," Lawless said.

Montebello Hardware, which had been owned by his wife's family since 1965, has been a commercial mainstay of the Lauraville-Hamilton neighborhoods. The business's origins stretch to the 1920s, when the ancestor business (at Harford Road and Overland Avenue) was owned by merchant John Engel. The present-day business is in enlarged quarters in the 4700 block of Harford Road, at Rosekemp Avenue.

While the store still has a large oak counter with what seems like 900 little drawers, nostalgia isn't the reason some customers bring their trade there.

"You can go to the Hechingers and the Home Depots of this world, but it's not the same. They have it at Montebello, and they tell you how to fix it, too," said Ronald Parrish, a General Motors building painter who owns a 90-year-old Albion Avenue house with its share of idiosyncratic ills.

The Lawless family -- their daughters Jenny, 14, and Kate, 15, students at John Carroll High School who are working alongside their parents this summer -- collectively believes there isn't a plumbing or hardware dilemma that can't be addressed. With this can-do philosophy, they have suspended a ruptured bathroom lead-pipe drain atop the plumbing supply counter.

"There isn't an old house in Mayfield that hasn't had drain trouble," Lawless said, gesturing to the broken pipe. "I show people what went wrong."

It is this level of personal involvement that has kept Montebello's customers coming back.

"When you go to the big places, nobody knows anything. This is so famous I heard about it one day when I was visiting my sister in Chester, Pa.," said Tom Cole, a Mount Royal Avenue resident who is technical director of Goucher College's theater.

Cole, who also acts locally and has visited the store when he needs a prop or the odd piece of equipment for a play, also used the store for his trade as a maintenance chief for two of North Baltimore's older apartment houses -- the Wyman Park on Beech Avenue and the Carolina on University Parkway.

"When the old porcelain turn handles on the old sinks rotted out, I was able to maintain their integrity because of this place. Brian showed me how to use the right parts," Cole said of the quirky plumbing in the 1920s buildings.

Lawless said the parts he stocked were not discontinued by manufacturers -- they were merely hard to find and not typically ++ stocked by chain hardware stores. He also has maintained a large library of supply catalogs and a computer.

When a question has gotten tricky, he's pulled out a box of study aids -- plumbing parts he's had sliced through the center like anatomical models to exhibit their inner workings.

"This place spoils you," said Grayson Ponder, a customer who has walked half a mile to the store from his Lauraville home for the past 57 years. "There's only one Montebello Hardware."

Pub Date: 8/07/98

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