Mrs. Wilson was a bright spot in old Towson

March 31, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

I DON'T THINK there's a room in my house I can't associate with Hilda Wilson, the lampshade diva of Towson. Mrs. Wilson, as she was known, was an indomitable businesswoman who sold lampshades and lamp parts from an old-fashioned store on the York Road in the heart of old Towson.

Mrs. Wilson, who died last week at 95 and is being buried today, was a character. A staunch and effective proponent of boosting the Baltimore County seat she so admired, she was also a presence in the domain of home lighting. I never attended one of the Towsontown Festivals she promoted, but I've still got plenty of the lamps and shades she sold me. Some are plenty ancient - and they just won't wear out.

In my family, you had to be a plenty special retailer to rate a trip to Towson. We were solid downtown shoppers. In the 1960s, when Hilda was at the height of her powers, Towson was strictly a provincial outpost with little to recommend it - or so we downtown believers thought.

The first time I heard her name spoken was from the lips of our neighbor, Dorothy Croswell, who was also a major downtown devotee, a woman with a weekly, 8 a.m. Saturday hair appointment at the Hochschild, Kohn & Co. beauty salon at Howard and Lexington streets.

But Hilda's prowess at lampshade-buying was a growing legend in the early 1960s. The word was she had taste and selection. And, she could also make the oldest and most battered lamp shine again. (Economy in home lighting is ever a big plus to value-conscious Baltimoreans. After all, why buy a new one when you can get the old one fixed.)

Dorothy Croswell made the decision to leave her third-floor Guilford Avenue apartment about this time and landed a gracious, 1915-era flat at the Homewood Apartments, Charles and 31st, overlooking Wyman Park. This was quite a move - one that required a trip to Mrs. Wilson's lamp emporium.

Dorothy, ever the prudent shopper, came back with one new lamp and one new shade. The shade was six-sided and had some birds on it. She said it cost a bundle but was a good investment. Old fashioned Baltimoreans would rather throw out their bankbooks than throw out their properly aged lampshades.

Years later, when I bought a home around the corner from my family's Guilford Avenue place, I, too, visited Mrs. Wilson's lamp rooms. I, too, heard her bark the order, always bring the lamp in to get the proper fit on a shade. Shoe salesmen were never as careful about fit as Hilda Wilson was.

In the late 1980s, after Mrs. Wilson had retired and sold her business to our family's friend, Tommy Travers, Dorothy Croswell made the decision to leave Baltimore and retired to Florida where her family resided. She also issued an order - I and my five siblings were summoned to her Charles Street apartment to select one item to remember her by.

Now this was a difficult assignment. What do you do? Ask for the sideboard, the Persian rug or a pot from the kitchen?

I looked around the living room and requested the Hilda Wilson memorial bird lampshade - then entering its maturity at about age 30.

I could read her face that Dorothy didn't sit too comfortably with my choice. But, as a woman of principle, she stood by her decision. She blurted out, "if you take the shade, you have to take the lamp base as well." Then she stood up, walked across the room, detached the cord from the wall and handed shade and glass base to me. And, in proper Hilda Wilson fashion, it stills functions today as it did in 1961.

I was now in trouble. Dorothy would be lampless in Florida if something didn't happen. If ever there was a gift with strings (and cords) attached, it was this one. I had a nice, similarly aged lamp reconditioned and deposited it in Dorothy's hands. She accepted it, took it to Florida and read her murder mysteries by its light.

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