A Catonsville staple

Store: Since the Depression, customers have been coming to Allan J. Muir's hardware store for custom service.

October 29, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

When Allan J. Muir opened his hardware store in Catonsville in 1935, the clanging streetcars still thundered through a bustling downtown.

Today, 66 years later, Muir maintains the Norman Rockwell feel of his main-street shop at 829 Frederick Road. Wooden sleds, plastic coolers and metal lawn-care equipment fill the broad storefront windows. The wooden floor boards creak, and the classic building has a musty old hardware store scent.

Gleeful children continue to get machine bubble gum for a penny, and plastic models of 1929 airplanes sit eye-level on the wooden shelves.

Muir, 91, still walks a block from home to work in his white sneakers for the 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. shift every day except Sunday.

"If you walk into Mr. Muir's hardware store, it's just like walking into Mayberry," said Maureen Sweeney Smith, former president of the Catonsville Chamber of Commerce. "And he can add like nobody's business."

Muir founded the popular store when he was 25, after working seven years at a Baltimore salvage company. Today, he stands as the wise dean of the Catonsville merchant circuit.

He opened on April Fool's Day, 1935, with a store that measured 15 by 20 feet. Today, Muir's variety of hardware merchandise stretches a block deep with a side parking lot to match.

"At one time, I was the youngest merchant," Muir said from under his gray tweed cap. "Now, I'm the oldest."

Much has changed in downtown Catonsville over nearly seven decades, and the affable Muir acknowledges that competition from the "big box" hardware stores, such as Home Depot and Lowe's, has made his shop an endangered species.

Baltimore National Pike, less than a mile away, has also pulled other stores from Catonsville's downtown, leaving Muir as the sole survivor from the Depression era.

"The grocery store is gone and the bowling alley and theater," he said. "They're hurting us. They're putting the small boys out of business."

The Catonsville native has lasted by providing custom service, patrons say. Customers can drop off ripped screens and broken storm windows to be repaired and picked up days later.

Loyal patrons like to visit and marvel at Muir tending his shop after all these years.

"I like it because Mr. Muir is here, and he's been here since I was 3 years old," said Don Nilsen, 41, of Catonsville. "I'd rather give my money to Mr. Muir than some big store."

Michael Kennedy of Catonsville has been visiting the store for 40 years.

"Somebody will find stuff for you, whether you need a bolt or a screw," Kennedy said. "It's the personalized service, and they're nice people."

For 41 years, Muir has had the constant assistance of his only child, Jay. The son, 56, earned a degree in business administration from the University of Baltimore and chose to remain at the quaint shop, where he started helping in 1960 as a 15-year-old boy.

The younger Muir admiringly looks on at his father after working side by side with him for four decades.

"It's quite a feat," he said of his father's career.

The Muirs aren't sure how long they'll remain in business. The days when they sold chicken feed and live baby chicks are long gone. And Muir said he's watched many loyal customers pass away.

"The older crowd is gone, and the younger crowd runs to the big stores," Muir said. "At some time we'll have to close down, but right now we'll go on for awhile."

Muir isn't thinking about that day yet, he said.

"I'm sure I'd miss it," he said. "I'm so used to it all these years."

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