Memories on layaway

February 01, 2003

REFUGEES FROM TIMES of both trouble and peace, they came for the equivalent of one more afternoon at Baltimore's retail mecca: the corner of Howard and Lexington streets, where department stores achieved a nearly spiritual importance for generations of Baltimoreans.

Last Sunday's time travelers were the clerks and the buyers and the housecleaning crews - and maybe the odd executive. But they milled about like polite shoppers at the biggest mark-down event of the season. Of course they were shoppers as well as staff. They were the irreducible human essence of what the Jewish Museum of Maryland called "Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore."

On the last day of the "Emporiums" exhibit, these men and women - far more women - gathered for a celebration of pride in work done well, done together, done for bosses who had standards they shared.

These stores were symbols of oppression, too, reflections of a time that worshipped at the altar of racial separation. Until the late 1950s, African-Americans could not try on clothes in these stores, could not use the bathrooms or return merchandise they might have worn. They could not work at sales counters.

It was a shameful time, but the world inside the stores was often different. The floors of clothing and appliances and linens were a crucible for testing biases and for daring to move beyond them.

On their day of remembrance, proud workers, black and white, wore stick-on tags printed with their names and the name of the store where they worked: Hecht Co., Hutzler's, Hochschild Kohn, Stewart's, May Co. - all of them gone from the city since the 1980s rush to suburban malls.

Old friends put up a formidable din of talking. A piano man's show tunes softened the clamor just as it had in that earlier time when music was used to stimulate buying.

Those were the days, days when a shopper could leave packages to be delivered by the stores' drivers. A Baltimore householder could order a single spool of thread from home and have that delivered. The shirt or the tie or the sweater would be carefully wrapped with precisely folded tissue paper inside and ribbon on the outside, Christmas or not.

It was all so easy if the customer was white. Until the late 1950s, sales to black customers might be declared "final": Clothing was unreturnable lest some white shopper think it contaminated. These practices cried out in cruel counterpoint to the grace and gentility these stores represented.

Yet they were a positive part of life for blacks as well as whites.

"We used to look forward to Christmas," said Carolyn Blackwell, a lifelong Baltimorean. "Our parents would tell us to take care of our needs and have something to eat before we left home."

Every kid felt the anticipation build and gaped at the windows when the seasonal decorations were unwrapped - but black kids couldn't use the facilities.

In time, black Baltimoreans were served and were hired. And many of them felt even more a part of something they cherished, something that sustained them.

"It was the times. We weren't going to change them," said Don Ball, an elevator operator and member of the housecleaning staff at Hutzler's. He stayed three years, then parlayed his experience into a better job at Sparrows Point.

He never forgot the Hutzler family. "They gave us love and security," he said. "That's why you see so many black people here today. They gave us 20 cents off on the dollar. They had a good layaway. I was one of the best-dressed people in town."

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