Old store living on borrowed time

Pawnshop: Livingston's, a Block fixture since the 1890s, has become a `shadow of its former self,' its owner says, and is set to close.

April 07, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The glory days of Livingston's, a downtown pawnshop built in 1898, are long gone but remain vividly preserved in a painting owned by the Livingston family's 87-year-old matriarch.

The vibrant watercolor in Miriam Livingston's Park Heights condominium was painted in 1946 by Aaron Sopher, a popular regional artist. It portrays the store's location at Baltimore and Gay streets as a corner teeming with pedestrians parading past the burlesque theaters.

Foremost among the buildings in the painting is Livingston's.

"It was always a very seedy neighborhood," Livingston said. "That was the charm of it."

In three weeks, the charm that Livingston's brought to The Block will be gone. By May 1, the pawnshop - the oldest in the state, according to the Maryland Pawnbrokers Association - will close its doors. The last big sale will no doubt turn up a few treasures inside the quaint bookend to a rowdy row of strip bars - but nothing as valuable as the store's history.

"It's a shadow of its former self," said Rixey Gore, whose family bought the name and the business in 1983 from Miriam Livingston, who still owns the 501 E. Baltimore St. building. "When it's time to close, it's time to close."

The store's founder, Louis Livingston, opened the business in the early 1890s. He passed it on to his son, Isaac, who ran the store until 1929. That's when Jules Livingston took over and turned it into a neighborhood fixture.

The former Marine ran two stores on East Baltimore Street. One business operated as a retail jewelry store, the other as the pawnshop. When he met and married Miriam Livingston in 1942, business at the pawnshop was booming.

"I didn't even know what a pawnbroker was," Miriam Livingston said. "What's funny is that my twin sister married a pawnbroker who had a shop on West Baltimore Street."

Livingston lives alone now, more than happy to share decades of stories about the world of pawnshops and the types of characters who continue to patronize the stores. Some pawn such items as college graduation rings every month to get to the next paycheck. Some hunters use the shops to store their rifles, only to reclaim them for hunting season.

Livingston's home is filled with intricate wood sculptures and stained-glass pictures she has created. But despite her talent, she never pursued a career in the arts. She also never pursued a career as a lawyer, even though she has a law degree.

"I had to make a decision between the store and a career in the law," Livingston said.

She chose the store and quickly became her husband's dependable partner.

"Jules was a real character," said Seymour Sussman, whose Northwestern Loan Company on Pennsylvania Avenue has been in his family since 1919. "He was a carryover from the old school."

Jules used a Marine's stern work ethic in running his business and when engaging in his favorite hobby of handball. Yet he never turned down a sincere request for a handout from friends, Miriam Livingston said.

Miriam Livingston said she immediately took control of the store's financial records when she joined the company. Inventory was a mess, she said. And the surrounding neighborhood wasn't much better.

"I used to keep a gun under the desk," she said. Even though the Police Department headquarters is directly across the street from the store, robbers repeatedly attempted to break in.

After her husband died in August 1982, Miriam Livingston tired quickly of running the business alone. The fourth generation of Livingstons - two daughters - had careers of their own.

"I was a professional photographer with a prosperous business," said Iris Livingston, the youngest of the two daughters. "We were happy to sell."

And Gore's family was happy to buy.

They ran the store under the Livingston name for the next 20 years. They ran into some bad press when city officials unjustly accused them of illegally selling guns. The store, however, has always been permitted to sell rifles and shotguns.

Business declined in the past few years after nearby public housing towers were demolished, eliminating much of the store's foot traffic. Parking is severely limited by the concrete barricades closing East Baltimore Street to protect police headquarters.

"They're in a tough location," said Richard Herskovitz, owner of Champion Pawnbrokers of Harford Road. "People aren't going to go out of their way to come to your store. You have to be convenient."

It doesn't help that there are 38 other pawnshops in the city. Mostly, they serve folks who are strapped financially and who pawn items for quick cash to tide them over. Customers then have 31 days to buy the property back with interest or to reserve its storage for a fee.

When customers do not buy back their property, the store is free to sell it after the Police Department's pawnshop squad determines that the items have not been stolen.

Gore said all of her customers have been told to redeem property they do not want sold.

"I've had to keep a box of tissues on the counter because customers who have been coming here for 50 years can't help crying," she said.

The building's future depends on who rents or buys the property from the Livingstons.

Three years ago, the family turned down an offer from Comfort Link, an affiliate of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. that built a facility next door. But that former suitor is no longer interested in the Livingston property.

"A lot of people will be sad with the passage of history that will go with its closing," said Iris Livingston, who is quick to add that the building is still zoned for adult entertainment. "I don't pretend it's going to be anything other than a bar."

If it is, she added, the Livingston name will no longer adorn the store's facade.

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