The Barber of Lutherville

Otto Gross would like to finish out the century of clipping begun by his father in 1904. But time and York Road development are tough customers to please.

August 23, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Otto Gross runs his clippers over Renie Peck's ovoid dome like traveler on an old, familiar route. He leaves behind a gray-white fuzz, short and tight as a cap of worn velvet.

We're looking here at years and years of experience, perseverance and endurance. This barber is 83 years old and his customer 81. The shop has been on York Road in Lutherville nearly 70 years.

"In 1934, I got my license," Otto Gross says. Except for 4 1/2 years overseas during World War II, he's been barbering ever since.

His father, Matthias Gross, was a barber before him. The sign painted on the big windows looking out on York Road still says "M. Gross Barber Shop."

"He always asked me why don't you put the `O' up there," Gross says. He'd taken over the shop a few years before his father's death in the late 1950s. "I just wanted to let it be the M. Gross Barber Shop."

Matthias Gross brought his tonsorial skills with him when he came to the United States in 1904 from the Czechoslovak corner of the Hapsburgs' Austro-Hungarian Empire. He started barbering on York Road in Texas, Md., when they were still quarrying white marble steps there for Baltimore rowhouses. He had shops in Towson, notably a six-chair shop in a building where Finkelstein's outdoor clothing store later operated for 60 years. When he moved to the Lutherville site in 1929, he sold the building to the Finkelsteins.

Now Otto Gross aims to complete an American century of father-and-son barbering.

"I'd take that if I can get it," he says. He'll only be 87 in the year 2004. "Why not, if I can. I still feel like working."

And he does. He's open 9 to 5, five days a week, a somewhat shorter workday than when he was younger. But he says being on his feet doesn't bother him and never has.

He looks fit, and considerably younger than 83. He's got a great tan, basically because he spends most of his Wednesdays and Sundays crabbing on the Severn River. The crabs have been running pretty good, too, he says.

But he's beset by temptation. His shop sits on what has become a pretty valuable piece of real estate in the middle of the hot York Road commercial corridor. The guys next door on both sides would like to buy the whole place, he says.

He's nestled on 70 feet of York Road frontage between Nationwide Auto World and Watson's Garden Center, 20,197 square feet total. The county sets its market value at $300,400, but who knows what it could bring with a couple of eager bidders?

But he's not selling.

"Not yet," he says. Maybe after 2004.

`A toughie'

His shop has a curiously detached and peaceful "Twilight Zone" feel on a warm summer morning. It's maybe 100 feet off the road and shaded by a big old maple tree that attracts a couple of curious tailless squirrels that Gross feeds.

The tree used to be behind the shop until a generation or so ago, when the county put in sidewalks (which the Grosses had to pay for). They then moved the shop back so they'd have parking out front.

Gross lives alone now in the house attached to the shop. His wife, Emma, died two years ago.

"That's a toughie," he says, "looking across an empty table. We were married three days before I went into the service."

That was in 1941.

His daughter, Carol Hilgartner, calls just about every day and comes over regularly. He has three granddaughters, including twins. And, of course, he carries their pictures in his wallet.

His mother and sister were killed in an automobile crash soon after his father came out to Lutherville. He still winds a big old Regulator pendulum clock that his mother gave his father for the shop on their wedding anniversary back in the 1920s.

When Matthias Gross moved to Lutherville, York Road was just a two-lane country highway that only got really busy when the Maryland State Fair was under way. Bellona Avenue wasn't cut through, and there were only a half-dozen houses between the shop and Timonium.

"One man used to ride his horse up. I was just a kid then. That kind of fascinated me," Otto Gross says.

"I remember the horse and buggy, and when airplanes went over you used to run out and look up to see them."

He used to beat the bus home, running from school along the tracks of the old battery-operated trolley car that ran more or less along Bosley Avenue through the woods that used to be there up to a place called Sandy Bottom Hill, which only old-timers like Gross remember.

Now suburban sprawl has rolled over him like an out-of-control 18-wheeler. York Road is lined with shopping malls, auto agencies, fast-food drive-throughs, professional buildings and quick tune-and-lubes. The highway is four lanes and packed virtually 24 hours a day. And Otto Gross is resigned to watch the generations swirl by before his shop windows.

"Not that I like it," he says. "It's here, and we have to accept it."

Satisfy the customer

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