Frances B. Booke, who sold jewelry at a downtown business she owned for nearly 50 years and was also a proprietor of the old Marconi's restaurant, died of stroke complications Tuesday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. The Mount Vernon resident was 88.
Born Frances Berman in Baltimore and raised in Reservoir Hill, she was the daughter of Isaac Berman, a pawnbroker. Her brother, Dr. Edgar Berman, was a surgeon who wrote the 1976 bestseller, The Solid Gold Stethoscope.
She was a 1935 graduate of Western High School and regularly attended class reunions.
In 1939 she married Louis Booke, and she assisted him with a loan office and insurance agency, Booker Loans, on Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1955 they changed the business to Louis Booke Inc., a jewelry and silverware shop, and moved it to Saratoga Street in the downtown retail district.
Mrs. Booke had the walls painted warm gray and light blue to better show the store's inventory of silver trays, candlesticks, water pitchers, and toothpick and place-card holders. She also decorated and changed the windows seasonally to suit her taste. She ran the shop with the help of two assistants and relied upon few security measures other than a large safe and a door buzzer.
"They were both born business people," said Stephen M. Cooper, her accountant. "It was their lives. I think they were rivalrous when it came to selling. Each thought they were the business and the other was going along for the ride. In the field, she knew a good diamond from a bad one."
Mrs. Booke worked alongside her husband until his 1978 death and then operated the business herself - often opening its plate glass front door before dawn - until late 2003, when she sold the building because she felt downtown real estate property values had risen sufficiently.
"She was an astute businesswoman who didn't lose too many sales," said Fred Brown, owner of J. Brown Jewelry in Pikesville. "She had a diverse clientele. Frances sold to some of the wealthiest people in the state. She was much respected in this business."
Friends said she had a good memory for names and often knew three generations of customers in a family.
"She gave a customer her undivided attention," said Barbara Smith, who worked with her for more than three decades. "She was precise. She was always very hands-on with a customer and involved in every aspect of the business. If there wasn't a piece of jewelry in the shop to suit them, she got out a pad, sketched a design and had it made."
In 1972, the Bookes purchased the then-imperiled Marconi's restaurant, opposite their shop on Saratoga Street. They feared the loss of the restaurant might reduce customer traffic, and they did considerable business entertaining at its dining room.
They left its operation to the restaurant's staff and later gave the business to their daughter, Ilene Ruth Booke, who died in 2000. The restaurant closed this year.
"From the day, many years ago, when I walked into Marconi's restaurant, it's been my favorite place in Baltimore," Mrs. Booke told The Evening Sun in 1993. "I've eaten there for 30 or 40 years and never had a bad meal. It's like it was the first time I went there, so lovely, so gentle. It's simple and plain, luxurious, and dear and warm."
Friends said that when she was busy at the jewelry store's sales counter, she would have a tuxedoed Marconi's waiter carry her lunch - a chopped salad, topped with shrimp, and a bottle of Perrier water - across Saratoga Street.
She made numerous appearances at area charity fundraising events and was a box holder at the Baltimore Opera Co.
Mrs. Booke was an early riser, and before walking to work from her condominium she would exercise her pug dogs - Coco and later Lady Di - around the Inner Harbor.
A member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, she would take her seat for Rosh Hashana services early in the day, before other worshippers, and stay late.
"Mrs. Booke was generally the first in a seat," said Rabbi Deborah Wechsler, who gave the Wednesday eulogy. "If she were there, we knew it would be a good year."
Survivors include two grandsons, Andrew Booke Cohen and Adam Stuart Cohen, both of New York City.