A Look Back At At Some Of The City's Homegrown Budget Stores

February 24, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

At least two Baltimoreans are still using their trusty 1960s E. J. Korvette's audio speakers, I learned after last week's look at retail history. Another reader requested equal time for Baltimore's homegrown budget stores, where I spent many Saturdays, not always willingly, as we were fitted for whatever we needed.

Let's consider Epstein's, Goldenberg's and Julius Gutman's, later Brager-Gutman's.

I can still remember the smell of the rubber of the tennis shoes in the old Goldenberg's basement on Eutaw Street, a building plowed under for the grossly overbuilt Lexington Market subway entrance.

No frills there. The shoes were tied in pairs and placed on projecting fingers on metal columns.

My mother, who had six children to outfit, sought its affordable prices while admiring its absence of pretension - wooden floors, stairs to the basement and salesclerks who were busy, efficient and never ignorant. The ancient elevators belonged in the Smithsonian.

Epstein's were all over the city's neighborhood shopping districts - Light Street (still partly vacant although in the heart of the Federal Hill), Gay Street (later Oldtown Mall) and Highlandtown east of Haussner's restaurant. Epstein's Eastern Avenue was definitely the Bloomingdale's of East Baltimore.

Shoppers swore by the values. The counters were orderly, as perfectly aligned as the shelf paper lining a Linwood Avenue cupboard. You could never mistake a price. Each item contained a sign held by a metal frame. The tariff was stated in red numbers. Each sign also carried the motto "Be wise, economize at Epstein's." Despite plenty of patronage, it never looked as if it had been sacked on Bethlehem Steel's payday.

Julius Gutman's, at Park and Lexington, was very inch a real department store, with a basement, banks of 1920s elevators, pneumatic tubes for cash orders over $20, hefty manual cash registers and dinging call bells.

My aunt Cora referred to it as Jay-Gee's when she picked up a wastepaper basket or some zippers for her sewing. Gutman's shoppers mobbed its 1950s-era 4-cent table. The big table, full of little notions, had a good location on the store's first floor and no shortage of patrons.

This brings up another point. We wore three classes of clothes: everyday stuff, bought at Gutman's or Epstein's; homemade clothes produced on treadle sewing machines; and mainline fare from places such as Hutzler's - or for special occasions, a place like Schoen Russell on Charles Street or Warner's on Baltimore Street. As a child, I was often dragged to all these places in a single day. I felt as if I had been to the Metropolitan Opera for five acts of Wagner.

Lunch, the most important part of the shopping day, could be Kresge's standup lunch counter (quick) or vegetable soup, kaiser roll and raspberry sorbet with fruit in Hutzler's basement. My mother liked the chicken chow mein. A cab ride home was a treat; on real budget days, the No. 8 streetcar worked just fine.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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