So ends an era for Hecht's, Baltimore

September 08, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

I went to bid farewell to Hecht's this week, but there wasn't much left of Baltimore's last homegrown department store.

Tomorrow, the few remaining Hecht's stores in the area become Macy's, the upshot of the merger of their corporate parents in February 2005. The transition has been under way for months, but after tomorrow, the Hecht's name will vanish from Baltimore's retail landscape after 149 years.

It exits with more of a whimper than a bang, a store that never quite captured its city's heart in the way that Woodie's held Washington's or Marshall Field's owned Chicago's. When trying to think of what iconic Hechtsian thing I would wax nostalgic about years from now, I could only think of the Red Dot - that markdown sticker on a price tag that made a so-so item suddenly more appealing.

And yet, to lose Hecht's is to lose a piece of Baltimore - or at least its past, which is basically the same thing.

By the time I moved here, in the late '80s, pretty much only the ghosts of the department stores remained on Howard Street. My mother, though, who lived here in the '50s, had fond memories of it: how the stores there stayed open late on Thursday nights because that's when people got paid; how she bought her wedding gown at the May Co.

Now of course, some stores are open around the clock as a matter of course - and I bought my wedding gown online.

In fact, most of my shopping takes place online now - I had to resist an e-mail tease from J. Crew about yet another final sale to have any chance of finishing this column - so I guess I'm partially to blame for the fading fortunes of many department stores.

Still, I mourn them, especially the great downtown ones that are becoming rarer every year. For all the conveniences of the suburban malls, there is still no place with the grandeur of the real Saks, the one on the Fifth Avenue of its name in Manhattan, or, the dream palace of my childhood, the Field's on State Street in Chicago, which horrifyingly enough also has become a Macy's because of the same corporate merger.

I was there this past Christmas - the news of how Field's would be converted into Macy's had already come down - and it already seemed no longer a store and more a museum exhibit. The crowds were still there, little noses were still pressed up against the windows with their holiday displays, while inside and upstairs, everyone was pointing cell phone cameras at the big Christmas tree.

But that was part of the problem - shoppers had long ago abandoned downtown, and now the great State Street flagship store had become a spectacle rather than a store. It was like this living, breathing thing was being embalmed without actually dying first.

I don't think I ever shopped at the Hecht's flagship on Howard Street - it closed a year after I moved here. I went to the one in Towson Town Center for a final Hecht's experience this week. It was in the final throes of shape-shifting from Hecht's into Macy's and was neither one nor the other but a temporary hybrid - a Mecht's or a Hacy's. I bought a pair of earrings, which came with a Macy's receipt but tucked in a Hecht's bag.

Mainly, though, it seemed like most department stores these days - the dressing rooms cluttered with the discarded try-ons of who knows how many previous customers, the offerings somehow not as engaging as in the Anthropologies and other boutiques that have taken customers from the mall anchors.

As an antidote, I called a couple of retired employees from Hecht's glory days.

"I had to take two streetcars to get there," Shirley Carp recalls of her high school job at the Hecht's downtown. "It was my first job. I loved it."

Carp, 74, went on to other work, but enjoyed meeting girlfriends on Thursday nights for dinner and shopping on Howard Street, using the red phone at Hochschild's-Kohn's in those pre-cell phone days and meeting at the Hecht's jewelry counter. She followed Hecht's to the suburbs - or maybe it was the other way around - shopping at the one on Reisterstown Road and then in Owings Mills long after she stopped going to the downtown store.

Like Carp, Lou Frank is a former Hecht's employee who gave an oral history several years ago as part of an exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland on Baltimore's department stores. For him, tomorrow's disappearance of the Hecht's name is almost inevitable.

Frank, 80, spent much of his working life at Hecht's - during which time the wheels of consolidation were already in motion. He started as a salesperson in the Boy Scout department of the old Hub store on Charles Street, one of a number of retail outlets that would ultimately be united into a single Hecht Co. After college and World War II, he returned to Hecht's, in its accounting department, and before retiring as controller was involved in the 1959 merger with the May Co.

"It's a constantly changing business," he says. "I hate to see the name disappear, but I'm glad the business is continuing."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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