Carroll variety store closing its doors after 40 years

Hampstead's Main Street won't be the same, longtime customers say

May 14, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

For the regular customers of Bob's Variety Store in Hampstead, Mother's Day is not complete without a hanging basket of nonstop begonias or showy fuchsias that hang from the store's greenhouse ceiling like a rain-forest canopy.

Bob's Variety Store is many things to its customers, but in the spring, it is Mother's Day Central, with potted miniature roses, geraniums, lupines and daisies waiting to honor mothers.

"I enjoy watching the people pick out flowers for their mothers or bring them in and let them choose," said co-owner Sue Klingenberg, who opened the store 40 years ago with her husband, Bob.

She's especially cherishing the flower season this year. Bob's will close its doors by early next month.

When word spread that Wal-Mart would open in Hampstead, customers of Bob's began worrying that the newcomer would force the Main Street mainstay out of business. They were wrong.

Retirement is putting Bob's Variety out of business before the Wal-Mart opens.

The Klingenbergs have been slowly selling their stock of plastic flowers, flowering plants, greeting cards, balloons, jump ropes, dish-washing soaps, extension cords, index cards, dolls, doll heads and hands, garden gnomes, lawn Santas, volleyballs, spot lifters and embroidery hoops.

Their store has just about everything, except a computer. The Klingenbergs ordered and reordered their exhaustive stock each week from memory.

But the ordering has stopped. The doors will close after 40 years of staying open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, in a community that used to have few other places to shop.

Bob's was there when Hampstead was a Black & Decker company town of 1,500 people, and Bob's has stayed much the same while the town has tripled in size.

The stream of customers begging them to stay and the stream of tears on both sides of the counter have made the Klingenbergs reconsider.

"We've thought twice ever since we first said [we would retire]," Bob Klingenberg said. "But we're at the age where we just know that we can't go on forever."

Both in their early 60s, the Klingenbergs have enough retail experience and foresight to know they probably would have to work harder for less money when Wal-Mart opens on the north side of town.

Bob's Variety makes a footprint of 4,200 square feet, compared with the 135,000 square feet planned for Wal-Mart. But Bob's departure will leave a void no business can fill.

A red-on-white sign bearing the store's name catches the eyes of passers-by. Plants and flowers for sale line the sidewalk. Inside, shelves spill over with merchandise, despite the clearance effort.

The aisles are so narrow that two people can pass each other only if they turn sideways. It's a situation that almost always begs for conversation, one of many reasons customers rarely walk out of Bob's without talking to someone.

Bob's sells laundry soap, liquid starch, roach killer. On a Saturday morning, the best man in a wedding could find glass chalk to scrawl "Just Married" on the newlyweds' car. A child on the way to a friend's birthday party could find a toy tractor, a doll, a checkers set.

On a rainy day, the parent of bored children could find all manner of craft supplies: wooden sticks (without the frozen treats), clothespin pieces, felt squares, wood glue, fabric glue, paper glue, glitter glue and hot glue sticks. Craft mavens come for the store's quaint supplies, like the miles of ribbon - grosgrain, velvet, chiffon, lace - sold by the yard.

One of the few things the store lacks is an answer for loyal patrons such as Teri Gayle Finnick, who asks the Klingenbergs, "What will we do without you?

Finnick and her 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, can walk to the store. They shop there at least once a week.

"If Sarah had a birthday party to go to, I could stop inside Bob's and get a toy, wrapping paper, a balloon, a card, and it's all done," Finnick said. "They sell everything from underwear to Christmas decorations. Candy and mops and brooms."

"Candles and lunch boxes," said Sarah, who has bought those and other items since she was 2, for the aunts, uncles and cousins on her Christmas list.

Last year, she chose an Underdog lunch box for her uncle. He takes it along every day on his landscaping jobs. She bought her aunt a string of beads intended for trimming a Christmas tree, but she insisted that they were a necklace. Her aunt proudly wears the purple iridescent strand to her job as a decorator.

The store has put up a banner for customers to sign as a farewell. The messages include these:

"I can't see Hampstead without Bob's."

"Our Sunday drives won't be the same."

"Where will I take my little one for a little something?"

"Just found you, and now you're leaving."

"Don't go."

The Klingenbergs knew it was unlikely Bob's would continue without them. They knew the town would lose something it might never get back.

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