Mourning specialty shops with knowledgable clerks

Business: Gone are the days when stores were passed down along with generations of experience with the wares and the customers.

September 25, 1999|By Jacques Kelly

ON A COOL MORNING the other day I was on a bus leaving the Fayette Street station when I was reminded of the number of tiny shops and little businesses that once made Baltimore's gritty old shopping district so distinctive.

As the Greyhound bus gingerly moved around Marion Street -- an alley behind Lexington -- I thought to myself of the many trips I'd made to Kesmodel's cutlery for knives and scissors, which once stood near the bus terminal.

And, come to think of it, don't I still use a pair of Kesmodel's scissors to trim off price tags and open letters? Those scissors, I believe, are 33 years old. They've never needed sharpening or repair.

In a age when stores grow larger and technically more efficient, I still think back to the dozens and dozens of medieval-like shops that downtown Baltimore once had. These were the places where you traded for the unusual, the hard-to-find, the downright weird.

Their counters were often dimly lighted, and the wooden floors sloped. There was absolutely no self-service. You made intelligent requests of the sales staff, and they produced the goods.

These were the graduate schools of retailing, the places where the owners possessed a tremendous knowledge of their wares -- and how they worked -- often because several generations of the same family had worked behind the counter.

Kesmodel's was Baltimore's impressive scissor and knife store. There were cabinets, drawers and files full of nothing but sharp objects.

When you asked for a pair of scissors, you were asked if you wanted the U.S., German, British or Japanese version. The same with knives, nail clippers, rose trimmers, razors and letter openers.

I'll never forget the time my third grade nun, Sister Marie Therese, wanted tiny pins for her bulletin boards. (She didn't like the way normal-sized pins showed up.) Specifically, she wanted quarter-inch pins.

My mother went on a quest. I think she wore out a pair of shoes -- she loved walking and only briefly drove a car -- in her search for midget pins. She wound up at the old Morton Schenk Co. on West Baltimore Street, a wonderful place that only recently went out of business.

Schenk's, a tailor's trimmings emporium, was perhaps the greatest of the we-have-everything places. Housed on several floors of a building with a cast-iron facade, it could have been lighted by gas. But there was nothing out-of-date about its inventory. It had what seemed like 10 million buttons, all arranged by color and quality.

The same staggering inventory was always available at the old General Radio and Record store, also on Baltimore Street, across from what was then callled the Civic Center.

The place reeked of vinyl records. It was said the basement shelves housed discs that Elvis Presley didn't know he'd recorded. Years later I learned that the General was owned by Ben Glass, father of the esteemed composer Philip Glass.

This was a serious store, wherein the clerks knew their goods.

I often think of a staffer there named Rachel. If you asked for a record, she would summon its catalog number by memory -- and presto, it would be on the shelf, filed by that number.

I've heard about large stores today that pride themselves on their sprawling inventories called category killers.

And, in many ways, they are remarkable for the way they pack a huge amount of merchandise under one roof. But for all this, what I miss is the helpful clerk, one who knows where the left-handed, Portuguese-made embroidery scissors are kept.

Pub Date: 9/25/99

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