Korvette's Led The Charge In (and Fell Victim To) The Discount Wars

February 17, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

On a directionless winter weekend, I spotted something that seems to define an era.

There, a flight below my kitchen, was a price sticker the size of postage stamp on the cover of an old Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass album.

That sticker, a little paper rectangle, was faded blue and carried the letter D, as well as the heading E. J. Korvette. It must have been attached with quite an adhesive to withstand years of proximity to my cellar furnace -- and wet Baltimore summers.

Korvette's, a national chain of discount stores, hit Baltimore (Joppa Road, Catonsville, Glen Burnie) in the mid-1960s. With the store came discount pricing, a retailing phenomenon that endures in all those Wal-Marts, Kmarts and Targets. In between, we've had Two Guys, Topps, Ames, Bradley's and Caldor -- and plenty more.

In other words, on the week in 1966 that that Herb Alpert record was sold, it was probably a dollar cheaper than the comparable platter sold at one of Baltimore's department stores or music shops. That little sticker represented one of the first shots in a retailing wrestling match that ended in a draw, when so many of the department stores folded -- and the early discounters themselves went out of business.

To budget-conscious Baltimoreans, the idea of a dollar off anything was potent catnip. We bought our records at Korvette's, along with cents-off shaving cream and $2 hammers some of us are still using. Of course, it didn't seem so at the time, but before long, we would be going to closing-down sales at Hochschild's, Stewart's and Hutzler's. Korvette's itself would call it quits in 1980. We often mourn the great retail houses of Howard Street; upstart Korvette's barely gets a footnote.

It took a lot of discounting to get my relatives to change their habits of shopping in Baltimore's oldest downtown locations, but I can recall evenings spent sailing out Perring Parkway in my father's 1964 Checker Marathon. Korvette's was a big store lighted with strips of bright fluorescent tubing. In the same shopping center was the Club Venus, where the big-name musical groups performed; their vinyl records would be steps away in the Korvette's sales bins.

If Korvette's had all the charm of a 1966 East German department store, so be it. We still went there for our imagined bargains. Or for a while we did, in what came to be an ever-shifting marketplace.

Baltimore's old downtown was just too unpredictable, just too much fun, with music stores where it was a pleasure to pay more than Korvette's was asking. I was not seduced by dreary Joppa Road for long. Downtown Baltimore, which was also living on heavily borrowed time, had too many quirks, too many characters, too much life.

Discounted or full price, those stacks of old vinyl 33-rpm records in my basement are not clutter, just inventory that demands hours of examination and only a faint possibility of chucking them out -- maybe a temporary relocation to an old friend's abode.jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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