To shop in Baltimore, bring your bus pass -- and wits

Residents make do, or take long trips to outlying malls

July 03, 2000|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Shopping for life's basics has become a lesson in perseverance, inventive economics and creative transportation for the residents of city neighborhoods ignored or vacated by large local and national retailing chains.

Although there is talk in Baltimore of new, big-box shopping centers -- at Port Covington in southern Baltimore and at the Inner Harbor East near Little Italy -- these plans remain a dream.

And this summer, at what once was one of the city's busiest downtown crossings --Lexington and Howard -- the former Hecht Co. department store is being gutted and converted into apartments. Its neighbor, the Stewart's building, is about to be converted into a $15.9 million, high-tech office center.

"There is no question that Baltimore is well behind the curve nationally in retail," said David S. Cordish, chairman of the board of the Cordish Co., developers of the Power Plant at the Inner Harbor. "There are retailers who want to be in Baltimore. It can be done. It's obvious there is a market -- 600,000 persons live in Baltimore."

Until that happens -- and even if it doesn't -- resourceful city residents have cobbled together their own means of getting around, locating wares and paying for them. They use transit bus passes, hacks, word of mouth and old-fashioned shoe leather.

"I've carried home rolls of carpet and everything else on a bus," said Ruby Winn, a Belair-Edison resident who had two pairs of miniblinds and other household goods in her hands as she waited recently for a No. 15 Belair Road bus at a stop near Lexington Market. "I don't drive, and have never owned a car. I don't want one."

`Not like Randallstown'

Other shoppers take the Metro subway or light rail system to Howard Street for shopping, medical appointments and hair cuts.

"I like looking at the different people here," said Z. Lee, a 45-year-old Baltimore County resident who grew up on Frederick Avenue. "Look at those guys selling socks and hats on the street. It's not like Randallstown here."

Lee, who owns a car, rides public transit, as do many of the shoppers in the old retail section of downtown Baltimore along Howard and Lexington streets.

"Cars are a nonissue to most of our customers," said Herbert Sweren, owner of Lexaco Appliances on Paca Street, one of the city's few remaining appliance stores. "In fact, most of them don't have bank accounts, let alone charge cards or automobiles."

Operating differently

This world of the city shopper -- estimated to contain about 300,000 people, or half the city's population -- operates differently from the Wal-Marts, Targets and Sears that dot the Beltway.

Sweren's customer base, which he estimates lives several miles in each direction from the Lexington Market, has changed during the past few years.

He lost buyers when the city demolished the Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes public housing projects; he's picked up new customers as service workers from the Inner Harbor's hotels and restaurants seek CD players, sofa beds and refrigerators.

Because so many of his customers don't have bank accounts, he cashes all sorts of checks, from social service agencies or legal case settlements.

"My girlfriend got a legal settlement and cashed her check at Lexaco," said Bill Price, a salesman and hack driver who lives in the Cedonia section of Northeast Baltimore. "She bought a stereo on the spot, too. I told her it would be cheaper in the suburbs, but she wanted to buy it there. I'd say 70 percent of the city people think it's cheaper to shop in the city. They don't see the contrast between the city and suburbs because they don't see the suburbs."

Price, who drives his fares around the city in his car, often picks up passengers outside the 45-year-old Mondawmin Mall at Gwynns Falls Parkway and Reisterstown Road, one of the city's enduring retail addresses.

"I hear the [youths] talking about what they buy -- $60 for a shirt, a new pair of tennis shoes for $120," Price said. "Mondawmin is where the younger blacks meet the girls, too, and exchange the telephone numbers. It's the hot place to be."

More exotic than a mall

In contrast, light-rail riders bound for Orioles games often don't know what to make of the open-air merchandise bazaar along Howard Street -- where jewelry and trinket peddlers sell wares from tables on the sidewalk. Although the scene is different from a controlled suburban mall, one thing remains constant: Money changes hands.

"As depressed as this area is, we still do fairly well here," said Rob Antoinin, district manager of Sports Zone, an apparel and shoe store in a renovated bank building at Howard and Saratoga streets.

And because nearly all the Mass Transit Administration's vehicles cross downtown, shoppers without cars often head to Howard and Lexington streets.

"The bus ride is a straight shot," said Evette Rowe, who lives on Lauretta Avenue in West Baltimore and carried a large bag across Lexington Street on a recent Saturday afternoon.

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