Closing Up Shop

After 61 years, Nick D'Adamo Sr. shutters Shocket's in Highlandtown, and friends stop by for one last bargain - and a goodbye.

January 15, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Another institution in Baltimore's Highlandtown neighborhood slipped into history yesterday when Nick D'Adamo Sr. closed his Shocket's bargain store forever with copious tears and great warm hugs for his last customers.

"You gotta go, you gotta go," he says through his tears. At 78, he's a slightly stooped, innately courtly man with a firm but gentle manner. "The people. I'll miss the people the most."

D'Adamo, long known as Mr. Nick on the avenue, received friends and well-wishers yesterday while seated on a throne as "King Shocket," wearing a plastic tiara and ringing a hand bell as customers searched for their last bargains.

Mr. Nick was a schoolboy at Polytechnic Institute when he started at Shocket's in Fells Point 61 years ago. Except for three years in the Army Air Corps in World War II, he has been at Shocket's ever since.

Shocket's had been on Eastern Avenue about 25 years when he showed up more than a half-century ago.

"It was a small store," he says. "But we had plenty of customers."

He bought the store and building at 3912 Eastern Ave. in 1982, and he has run it ever since, with a lot of help from his son, Nick Jr., the First District councilman. Nick Jr. has worked in the store 31 years. It's a place where people stay. Their one remaining employee, Dorothy Stein, the cashier, has been there 38 years.

Since Mr. Nick announced his retirement, he has heard from customers scattered as far as California and Florida. Shoppers rallied from all over the state to share memories and wish him good luck and Godspeed.

Dorothy Dietz O'Neil, who lives around the corner on Conkling Street, stopped in to say goodbye and buy some Christmas ornaments at the half-price closing sale. She brought her nieces, Heather. 14, and Ashley, 16, just as her mother had brought her.

"My mom used to bring me in here every Saturday," she says. "`Come on, let's go window shopping,' she'd say. And we'd have to stop at Shocket's. He was known for his fish bowls and plates and ornaments.

"My parents passed away. I have [their] ornaments from here hanging on my tree. They're at least 40 years old. I see the same ornaments back there now. It's kinda ... amazing."

She picked up a couple of shopping bags.

"I had to get the shopping bags. They're famous around the world."

The bags carry a slogan, which comes from an applique wall hanging made for Mr. Nick by a nun:

Happiness Is Shopping At Shocket In Highlandtown.

`Down to earth'

Mr. Nick has always been a soft touch for priests and nuns. He is well-known for his generosity, not only in Highlandtown and East Baltimore, but across the archdiocese. He has been president of the Holy Name Society. And he has just been honored as one of the three oldest altar boys at St. Leo's Parish in Little Italy, where he was christened and went to parochial school.

So he autographed a couple of bags for O'Neil. Tears welled up in his eyes and she gave him a big, strong hug.

"You guys are so sweet and down to earth," O'Neil told him.

Mr. Nick's wife, Grace, has stopped in for the last stints at the cash register. They have been married 54 years. They met at the Saturday night dance at the Alcazar when Joe Dowling's band played.

"He was a pretty good dancer," she says.

Linda Koonce pops up with her daughter, Tychiere, to say goodbye.

"I brought my daughter here," she says. "I used to come here when I was a little girl, and the same people still work here. My mother, who lives in North Carolina, every time she comes here she comes all the way over to Eastern Avenue to get her cloth, 'cause she sews. I been coming here since I was 5, now I'm bringing my daughter here. Lotta generations here. Best store on Eastern Avenue."

Do we still look the same? Grace D'Adamo asks.

"I remember him," she says, looking at Nick Jr. "He was young."

Everybody laughs.

Nick Jr. was 45 yesterday. They chose his birthday to close the store so he would never forget the date.

He says Shocket's was a dollar store before there were dollar stores.

"We were better than dollar stores," he says. "We were the 97-cent store. You can see our signs. Everything's 97 cents since we've been in business. It was always under the dollar. People felt they were saving three cents, which they were."

Three cents were important when a dollar was hard to come by in Highlandtown.

"The biggest item we were probably known for was underwear - T-shirts, men's briefs, ladies' underwear - and they were [second quality]," Nick Jr. says.

"The mayor wears Shocket's underwear," he declared at a reception for his father at City Hall before Monday's City Council meeting. Mayor Martin O'Malley didn't deny it when he proclaimed Nicholas D'Adamo Day in Baltimore.

Busier days

Eastern Avenue was a dynamic shopping center when D'Adamo arrived on the street.

"This used to be the second leading shopping center in the city," Nick Jr. says. "Howard and Lexington was No. 1, and Eastern Avenue was No. 2. We had them from 9 o'clock in the morning until 9 o'clock at night. We had to throw them out at night.

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