The cart is a good example of how shopping has changed

February 01, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

There hasn't been too much to do this winter except go shopping - and maybe houseclean the pantry, too, which I knocked off this week, thanks to all the stuff I've recently acquired.

My father and I took off for the new Wal-Mart, new to us at least, in deep South Baltimore, not so far from where he was born. After a couple of tries, we located the city's first branch of the well-known retailer.

Who would have thought that this huge variety store would be built on what I consider prime waterfront property? The parking lot has a majestic view of the city. On the frigid day we were there, you could see down the little whitecaps on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco, toward Canton and the smoke plumes of Sparrows Point. There were some great freighters approaching. My father wondered why the developers didn't put a restaurant on the Wal-Mart roof so diners could have enjoyed the view, the way an enterprising merchant might have done in the day of more individualist selling.

In the last week of January I also made it to some big-box stores and other retailers in the far suburbs. The first thing you do, of course, is grasp a shopping cart, then walk the aisles.

How different, I thought, from shopping expeditions say, maybe 35 years ago, when you would have never dreamed of dragging a cart through the aisles of a Hutzler's, Hochschild's, Stewart's or Hecht's. That was something an inventory clerk did.

I really recalled the differences when I dropped by the Jewish Museum of Maryland for the wrap-up of its tribute to many of our departed and cherished department stores. The last day of the exhibit, last Sunday, was packed. I ran into many old friends and made some new ones.

After a couple of weekends' worth of pushing a wire shopping cart through the aisles of where we all shop these days, I couldn't help but think of the slower manner in which we once shopped, very matter-of-factly, and not so long ago.

It was probably less efficient, but there was a time when a salesperson handed you a roll of shelf paper and put it in a bag and then made change. Granted, there are compensations our huge national chains bring. I am amazed at how low the new-style merchants can keep their prices. There are certain items that cost less today than they did when I was in college.

At the museum, I considered the pictures of Howard and Lexington streets, the densities of the crowds there in the 1940s and '50s. But what really grabbed me were some of the objects on display, such as the roll of toilet paper from Hutzler's. I can recall my very proper maiden Aunt Agnes, who resided in a very proper rowhouse off Riverside Avenue, calling Hutzler's and having a case of it delivered to her home, where she stacked it neatly in her cleaner-than-clean cellar. I knew people who phoned in orders for mothballs, then had the store deliver them to the house, at no charge.

I also saw a small Hutzler's candy box, pink and red, and thought of all those delicious bakery products these stores had. Wouldn't those of us who had the pleasure just love one more Wellesley fudge cake from Hutzler's or a slice of Hochschild's chocolate seven-layer?

Oh well, the shopping cart is the winner, I guess. Then, the other day, I was back in my old neighborhood, going to the Waverly post office. I headed up Gorsuch Avenue, past the old A&P store where I first saw a wire shopping cart, probably a little more than 50 years ago. Now this place is due to be torn down, along with some nearby Victorian houses, a loss I'll miss. It all goes to make way for a new, larger grocery store, with many more lanes for carts.

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