After decades, a melancholy transition for 912 S. Charles

A melancholy transition for city store

February 18, 2002|By Dan Rodricks

ANNE KLEIN'S father, a cabinetmaker named Yale Klein, formerly Y. Kulishzewski of Czarist Russia and known to his immigrant friends in South Baltimore as Joseph, bought an 87-year-old building on South Charles Street in 1927, moved his wife and four children into the top two stories and turned the first floor into a hardware store. His mortgage payments were $7.50 every two weeks, payable to the Bevan Street Permanent Building Association.

Opening a hardware store in what is now called Federal Hill was a smart move. Anne Klein, who was 11 at the time, believes her father was one of the few hardware merchants on the south side of the city, and his location -- with his "50 rolls of floor coverings" and his talent for furniture repair -- gave him a competitive edge. Klein's Hardware benefited from what marketing experts today call "destination shopping." After farmers from Anne Arundel County delivered their produce to Cross Street Market, for instance, they always stopped at Klein's before heading home. "They were good customers," Anne Klein said. "Different than today."

She said this Saturday morning, during Klein's going-out-of-business sale, a continuing, melancholy project of Anne Klein's nephew, Yale Klein, and her niece, Beverly Stuck. Slowly, during intermittent Saturday openings, the goods are going out the door -- and usually not before a customer shows Anne Klein a receipt. She keeps an eye on everything from her seat at a table against the left wall and answers an occasional customer query, such as the quintessential South Baltimore hardware store question I heard the other day: "Where're your drill bits at?"

Once all the drill bits are gone, the building at 912 S. Charles will undergo renovation, but continue in its longtime use -- retail of some kind on the first floor, living quarters on the second and third. It will remain in the Klein family.

A Klein family story: Soon after Yale Klein opened for business in 1927, he hired a black man named Walter Roberts as a general helper and deliveryman. Once, Roberts and Klein made a delivery of repaired furniture to a house in Anne Arundel County, arriving at their destination to find a sign that warned, with hateful slurs, blacks and Jews to stay away. They left the furniture outside and, when the homeowner complained about the incomplete delivery, Yale Klein reminded the man about his detestable sign. Klein and Roberts worked together for two decades. They died the same year, 1949.

That was when Yale Klein's children took over the store -- his son, Harry, and his daughter, Anne. Like their father, they never used a cash register. They kept the store stocked with what homeowners and small businesses in South Baltimore needed -- from toilet plungers to lock sets. You could always find a new broom or trash can at Klein's.

Harry died at 86 in 1993. Anne ran the store by herself -- and lived upstairs -- until last fall, when she moved into a retirement community on Reisterstown Road. She identifies Oct. 29, 2001, as "the day I lost my independence."

"And," she adds, "I resent it." The store has been her life, more or less, since she was a girl.

Anne Klein has that feisty, one-eye-open-for-shoplifters attitude that I've seen in a lot of longtime city merchants, but she's as susceptible to the emotions that accompany transition and loss as anyone. In a moment of reverie, as a man stood behind her examining tubes of caulking, Anne Klein returned to long-ago Friday nights in South Baltimore, after dinner on the Sabbath.

"My brother and I have already been to the library, after school, to take out new books," she said, describing the scene as it formed in her mind. "What a thrill that was for us, to run to the library and get a new book. I like happy endings and my brother likes detective stories. And we're sitting at the table with a candle burning, and my mother, who taught herself English, is reading the newspaper and telling my father the news and they are discussing it." Then her father goes for an evening walk down sidewalks loaded with large families spilling from rowhouses and amassed on steps -- to some he is Klein, to some Yale, to some Joseph, to all he is the hardware man -- and he hears the latest neighborhood news and returns, refreshed and happy, to 912 S. Charles, his home and his business.

Anne Klein smiles as she tells this story. I have seen this smile before. It's the pleasure of memory taken amid the going-out-of-business sale, and good that she shared this vision of old Baltimore as her 12-year-old grand-nephew, David Stuck, sat nearby. It's good for the future to listen to the past.

Fresh start

And it's always good to see the future pick up where the past left off.

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