Shop Talk

They left their hearts on Howard Street, where luxury was a new idea and shopping was always civilized.

January 19, 2003|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

They will gather in a room lined with mannequins and ladies' dresses, old photographs and display cases, precious remnants of the once- great institutions they loved. They will meet and greet, nibble on desserts and sip coffee and tea. But mostly they will remember what many recall as the greatest experience of their lives.

They are the former employees of Baltimore's downtown department stores, exiles from Howard Street when Howard Street was Howard Street: a commercial center lined with classy stores and patronized by women in hats and white gloves.

That era is long gone, but its employees remain -- like members of some proud but long-shuttered sorority house -- and they will reunite next Sunday and recall the great names once more: Hutzler's, Hochschild Kohn, and Stewart's.

"I just fell in love with Hutzler's and the people and the merchandise," recalls Shirley Bukowski, 83, of Essex, one of several hundred or more former department store workers expected to attend the event. "I still sit here and think of that store.

"I think of what merchandise was on every floor and the elevator attendants who called it out, floor by floor. Today, I feel such a loss because I can't find anything quite like it anymore."

Much of Baltimore still mourns the passing of its family-owned department stores, the last of which closed more than 13 years ago. They represented the economic vitality and sophistication of a thriving, modern city, but just as important, they traded in a kind of gentility and level of personal service that is rarely encountered in the modern mall or shopping center.

Nobody feels that loss quite as keenly as the sales clerks, the warehousemen, the waitresses, the executives and the thousands of others who made a living there. Their investment in Howard Street was far more meaningful than mere bricks and mortar -- and ultimately more lasting, too.

That's one of the things Melissa Martens discovered when she set out to create an exhibit to explore and celebrate the Jewish-owned department stores of downtown. The resulting display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland has proven so popular that its planned 10-month run was extended from October 2001 to this coming Feb. 2. This Sunday's reception, open to all former city department store employees, will be the show's last hurrah.

"The feelings people have about these stores are very powerful," says Martens, a curator at the Lloyd Street museum. "People would tell me, 'I learned everything I needed to know about life from Hochschild Kohn's.' "

Names linger on

Martens, a Philadelphia native, conceived of the exhibit nearly five years ago while walking down Howard Street and seeing the names that were still inscribed in many of the buildings. With the efforts to redevelop the downtown's west side already in the works, she thought the time was right to explore that aspect of the city's heritage.

What she discovered was that Baltimore was far from the first city to have a department store -- Paris, London, New York and Chicago had them by the Civil War years. Baltimore's first, Joel Gutman & Co., didn't open until Sept. 27, 1886.

Before then, she notes, Baltimore shopped in specialty stores and the act of shopping was businesslike and purposeful. Department stores brought many different kinds of products and trades under a single roof, and created the concept of browsing, filling the needs of a growing middle class seeking the luxuries and fashion that had previously been the province of the rich.

The arrival of these veritable palaces of commerce signaled a coming-of-age, an elevation to big-city status. The fact that they were Jewish-owned was a natural progression -- immigrant Jews brought with them a retail tradition from European cities. While the stores themselves hardly flouted that heritage, they provided job opportunities for Baltimore's burgeoning Jewish population.

But as she researched her subject, Martens found her most fertile resources were the Howard Street workers and their memories. They spoke to her of their personal loyalties to the families who owned the stores, of how important Howard Street became as the city's social center, and how the social issues of the time, particularly segregation and women's rights, played out on the retail stage.

"Ultimately, these were feminine arenas," says Martens. "They were created as enclaves for women to shop in a city that was seen as dirty, crowded and not safe. But they also provided an acceptable occupation for unmarried women."

For women like Shirley Bukowski, Howard Street was a revelation. She was raised in blue-collar Highlandtown on the east side of the city. Walking into Hutzler's in 1937 (where she'd been hired as a cashier) seemed to her like walking into Buckingham Palace.

"I went to work at Hutzler's at 18 and there was a whole other world uptown," she says. "So many of my friends never left Eastern Avenue, and never knew about what else is out there."

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