Sam Harris, 94, managed sporting goods store 70 years

August 15, 1998|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

As manager of the Simon Harris Sporting Goods Store, Sam Harris held the firm belief that the first customer of the day must always buy something.

It didn't matter what the customers bought -- shoelaces, a hockey puck, a needle to inflate balls -- as long as they bought something.

"And he'd do anything to get that first customer," joked his wife, the former Doris Hanken. "He'd bargain, whatever. That first customer was really important to him."

Mr. Harris, 94, who worked in and later managed the popular East Baltimore sporting goods store for more than 70 years, died Wednesday in his sleep at Pikesville Nursing Home. He spent most of his life in East and Northwest Baltimore, but most recently lived in Pikesville.

Not only was the day's first customer important to Sam Harris, every customer was. He crammed his four-story North Gay Street business with thousands of items in hopes of pleasing every customer.

For example, where else could you find a woolen football uniform? And what other sporting goods store had a pair of wooden ice skates just for you? Anyone need a box of 500 ice skates -- all left footers?

Perhaps as amazing as his inventory was that he actually knew where everything was in the store.

"He was the only one who knew where everything was," said Mrs. Harris, whom he married in 1960.

A small man with a gentle smile who seldom got ruffled or too excited, Mr. Harris rode the bus from his home to the store six days a week, arriving about 7 a.m. and leaving after 6 p.m.

Mr. Harris completed the eighth grade. When he was 10, he began work in the store his father, Simon Harris, founded in 1887, family members said. The store was first located on Harrison Street in East Baltimore and moved to Gay Street in the 1920s.

Simon Harris died in the 1930s and Sam Harris took over the business. The store flourished under the younger Harris, with clientele over the years that included Sugar Ray Leonard, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and William Donald Schaefer, former governor and Baltimore mayor.

He did a little of everything at the store -- from sales to bookkeeping to cleaning (he once included a mound of dust on a shelf as part of his inventory) -- but liked buying merchandise best.

"This was his life, and he was a great buyer," said his stepdaughter, Phyllis Horwitz of Bluefield, Va. "He knew a good bargain when he saw one. He gloated in getting a good buy."

Mr. Harris loved sports almost as much as he loved people, friends said, and liked to spend time talking to customers about their teams, leagues and averages.

"You might tell him your team is called the Reds, and he'd talk to you for a while, and then he'd go find some red shirts and uniforms," said Ted Watkins, an area coach who had shopped at Mr. Harris' store for more than 20 years. "Sure, he was a businessman, but he was also a friend to all of his customers. People liked to go back there to find a good deal and to just talk to him, too."

Mr. Harris also was known to give equipment to teams that VTC struggled financially or the poor -- especially youngsters.

He sold the business in 1987. Within five years, the business closed.

Services were held Thursday.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by many nieces and nephews.

! Pub date: 8/15/98

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