The Old Stewart's: Full Of Merchandise And Memories

August 04, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

It's good news that the doors on the former downtown Stewart's department store have opened again, this time as the home of Catholic Relief Services.

For 28 years, the building has been vacant and unproductive, not at all like the decades when this was a crossroads of stylish merchandise carried home in light-tan shopping bags.

Physically, Stewart's was an old store, built in the last years of the 19th century, but there was nothing dark or Victorian about its interior. Large windows, facing south and west, kept the sales floors light and airy. It was a roomy, rectangular building, with a small balcony with a curling iron railing at the first-floor rear. Here was the book department. The person doing the selecting did a good job; I never bought a dud title here.

It was a clean store -- no dirt or clutter allowed.

There was a bank of telephone booths with accordion doors. In the great department store era, telephone calls were considered private moments; today, with the cell phone, we shout out our private information like football cheers.

In years of writing about Baltimore's classic stores, I've learned that shoppers often carry highly particular memories. I'll never forget the sharp-looking Westinghouse art deco elevators, all trimmed in satin-finish chrome and polished walnut. They reminded me of classic limousines. These lifts were rather old-fashioned; the store's management had them all removed and a bank of escalators put in.

I also think of the great neckties. Stewart's was a bastion of the so-called preppy style of neckwear. These goods were often beyond my means, but I could still admire the silky foulards. The ties were set out front and center at the doors at Howard and Lexington streets. In keeping with the Joe College look, there were also many polo shirts and crew-neck sweaters.

Stewart's had a mountain of fancy imported wares and objects that made it seem like an overseas bazaar. The store also had a huge inventory of silvery German Christmas ornaments. I made an emergency rush there to reoutfit a Christmas tree one Dec. 26 after ours collapsed in the middle of the night and smashed our decorations.

Did I spend half my childhood in the dry goods department? This held a special attraction for my grandmother, Lily Rose, and her sister, Cora, who often cut out and made their own clothes. They held long conferences with the buyer, Augusta "Gussie" Curry, about a piece of silk shantung. They seemed to spend hours over the long tables that held bolts of material.

As a child, I was allowed to select a piece of Stewart's wool blanketing. It lasted 40 years until it finally went into shreds.

I occasionally bought a wedding gift in the china and silver department, which carried an amazing warehouse of stuff. It was possible to buy one bread-and-butter dish in a certain Wedgwood pattern. I can only imagine the inventories kept in Stewart's back rooms. I also would not envy whoever had to clean all those plates.

Stewart's closed downtown in 1979, but there are physical reminders that never went away. I bought a brass reading lamp at the store shortly before it closed. There was no question; I wasn't about to lug it home on a transit bus. I had it sent -- another old department store tradition -- and it arrived a day or so later. And I'm still using it.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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