Famous owner of familiar voice finds success lies in word of mouth

Bentley speaks out in world of business

January 07, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

He knew that voice.

Art Sims did an aural double take when he walked into the Cockeysville antiques store a few days before Christmas. That voice, that face - that voice. The memory continued to nag him long after he left, until he got in the car and turned on his radio - and heard former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley reminding people to shop at her husband's longtime business.

"I knew I knew you," the Hunt Valley man said triumphantly when he returned to Bentley's Antiques for some last-minute Christmas shopping. "I knew the voice is what it boiled down to."

Bentley had hoped for just this kind of reaction when she taped radio ads for the store last month. "People just forget you're here," she said. "Which is why I use my voice."

The voice. How to describe it? Raspy? Yes. Gravelly? A bit. Curt? Sometimes. But perhaps the best way to capture the essence of the Bentley sound is simply to paraphrase U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's observation about pornography: You know it when you hear it.

Hearing Bentley on the radio is nothing new for Baltimore-area residents. She not only continues to call in to radio talk shows six years after her retirement from politics, she also enjoyed, with Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, one of her closest friends, a brief tenure doing advertisements for McCafferty's restaurant in 1995.

But her increasingly active role at Bentley's Antiques, where she now works every weekend, does mark a change for the staunch Republican, who runs her own consulting firm, Helen Bentley & Associates Inc., and lobbies in Annapolis and Washington.

Inveterate collector

Bentley was a collector long before her husband opened his first store 33 years ago, even before they married 41 years ago. Encouraged by restaurateur Frances Haussner - whom she met in 1950, while working as a reporter for The Sun - she began buying things that caught her fancy.

Such as?

"Oh, God, what didn't I collect? Plates. I've got Occupied Japan by the ton. Copenhagen Christmas plates. Chinese porcelain. A lot of Hummels."

After leaving The Sun in 1969, she continued to scout for her favorite items while serving on the Federal Maritime Commission and then spending 10 years in Congress.

She remembers the first auction she attended with her husband, Bill, somewhere on St. Paul Street in the late 1960s. Helen Bentley proved to be a most exuberant bidder, purchasing so many items that it required 10 trips to ferry everything back to their store, then on 33rd Street. "I bought so much stuff that Bill cried."

Some of the items purchased at the first auction are in Bentley's Antiques today - not that Bentley will necessarily let you buy them. She has a large, glass-front bookcase, for example, that cost her $50. She wouldn't sell it today for $10,000 - and it's easily worth that much, she adds.

Bipartisan offerings

But there are plenty of other things to buy at the three-story shop on York Road. Furniture, china, Bentley's beloved Hummels, toys, a lone Tom Jones album, even a bipartisan selection of political memorabilia.

"Yes, well, I have a friend who needs to sell his Kennedy-Johnson stuff," Bentley said, when asked about the profusion of Democratic souvenirs.

But there are Bill Clinton buttons as well.

"There are?" Bentley turned to Tom Richards, one of eight dealers who rents space in the shop. "Are we making money off Clinton?"

Although Bentley was a delegate for Arizona Sen. John McCain, she is delighted with the outcome of the presidential election, and has requested tickets to the inauguration. She also plans to put a lot more President George H. W. Bush memorabilia on sale, as soon as she can dig it out.

More than selling

She buys constantly, sometimes purchasing large lots sight-unseen. A man came in recently, desperate to sell a collection of toys in order to pay his father's medical bills. He asked $300 for the lot. Bentley says she gave him $400, promised to send more if the toys were worth more, and assigned someone on her consulting staff to see what they could do about the father's Medicare. The antiques business is not so different from being in Congress, after all.

But the context - Bentley filling out receipts at a wooden desk near the door, dressed in a jeans and a denim shirt - throws some shoppers off.

"Goodness, you look so familiar," said Daniel Everitt of Lutherville, who was looking for a perfume bottle with an atomizer.

"I hope so," Bentley said.

Then it clicked. "Oh gosh, I wish you'd consider a comeback. Oh gosh, what do you think of our new president?"

Another shopper announced: "By the way, I would have voted for you. Ellen Sauerbrey is too harsh." Presumably, he wasn't a registered Republican during the 1994 gubernatorial primary, when the favored Bentley lost to Sauerbrey. In response to a question about her relationship with the state's other prominent woman Republican, Bentley said, "I see her at fund-raisers. I say hello to her."

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