Still longing for Hecht's as Boscov's bows out

August 15, 2008|By Ellen Marshall

Well, it's done. The Chapter 11 filing this month by Boscov's Department Store LLC is heralded as a sign of lagging retail earnings since our "non-recession" began. However, all of us loyal Hecht's shoppers know the real truth.

Boscov's was the five-and-dime of department stores. I went to the White Marsh store a total of three times in two years - me, the queen of shopping. The first visit I walked - no, ran - quickly out of the less-than-charming store, and over to Macy's. On the second visit, I bought a few items for my son and husband because I had 30 percent off coupons. On the third trip, I vowed never to return.

Department store gods, hear my plea: Bring back my Hecht's.

Why is it that the Hecht Co., formerly the May Co. and the Hecht-May Co., survived for decades in Baltimore? What made that store a favorite of us working gals? How many of you traded bargain stories of the great $220 Jones New York jacket you just purchased for $50 and wore the next Monday to work?

FOR THE RECORD - An article on Friday's Commentary page, "Still longing for Hecht's as Boscov's bows out," wrongly attributed a quote from a 2006 Baltimore Style magazine piece. The person quoted should have been identified as Mary K. Zajac. Also, quotation marks were missing from part of the quote. The Sun regrets the errors.

Hecht had auspicious beginnings. David May founded the May Co. in 1877 during the Colorado silver rush. It featured clothes that would weather the dirty business of mining for those seeking their fortune. It incorporated as the May Department Stores Co. in 1910 and opened its first Baltimore store when it bought the Baltimore Hecht Co. (founded by Samuel Hecht in the late 19th century and opened as a department store in 1926) in 1959.

Baltimore Style magazine, in its May/June 2006 issue, reports a recollection from Melissa Martens:

"My father clearly remembers his mother buying his eighth-grade graduation suit - a brown pinstripe - at Hecht's Reliable on Broadway, one of the company's earliest stores. His sister, Mary Benskie, remembers shopping there as a child in the '30s. 'The ladies and children's clothes were on the second floor,' she recalls. 'My mother would take us shopping at Easter time to get an outfit. You would get a coat and a dress and a hat - you weren't dressed up unless you wore a hat.'"

My aunt also remembers browsing at The Hub during lunch breaks from her bookkeeping job for a steamship company at Baltimore and Calvert, and buying a living room set on credit from the Hecht's on Howard Street. "They never charged interest like they do now," she explains. The store would give you a booklet similar to a bank passbook, and you would pay $1 or $2 a month, which would be marked in your book. There might have even been a little discount if you paid within 90 days.

Those of us who got on the No. 8, 15 or 19 streetcar to spend a day at the four anchor stores in downtown Baltimore - Hecht Co., Hochschild Kohn, Stewart's and Hutzler's - were in shopping heaven. Our dads may have only made about $50 a week, but that was enough to qualify for a Baltimore Shopping Plate. We had that magic silver-plated credit card that was good for a new Easter outfit or a pair of back-to-school shoes.A Gardenville gal, I boarded the No. 15 on Belair Road with my mother or my aunt during those days in the late 1950s for a Saturday of fun. We would start our excitement by dressing in our Sunday best of white socks, Mary Janes and white gloves. The excitement reached a peak when the streetcar or bus turned onto Fayette Street and downtown came into view.

We would always start at the department stores. By lunchtime, we took a break for a sandwich and a scrumptious pineapple soda on the balcony of Read's Drugstore before moving on to the hat shops along Howard Street. When I reached the great age of 13, I was sometimes allowed to carry the coveted Baltimore Shopping Plate with a note from my mother that I was her daughter and allowed to sign for purchases.

In 1968, we saw the beginning of Inner Harbor development and the end of the downtown stores. Hochschild's, Hutzler's and Stewart's left in the late 1970s. Hecht's closed in 1989, the last of the downtown holdouts. With the close of the downtown stores, I migrated with others to the Hecht's in the suburbs to shop. By that time, I had daughters of my own who loved to shop as much as I did.

We were drawn to Hecht's, standing outside its doors for Saturday opening, by the coupons and the weekend bargains. But we stayed Hecht customers because of the service.

When Boscov's opened its stores in Baltimore in 2006, taking over mall spaces vacated by Hecht's, I mourned for weeks. It was like attending the wake of a beloved cousin with whom I shared many a happy weekend.

It is unfortunate that the chain's 9,500 employees will need to be looking for work and that the 200 Baltimore-area staff will soon be hitting the unemployment line. But anyone with some shopping sense could have called this two years ago. "Did you really think you could win my loyalty as Hecht's did?" we ask.

When Hecht's announced its 1989 closing, it was after the opening of Harborplace and the disinvestment of money in the downtown shopping district. Today, when Filene's, Best Buy and Victoria's Secret are going great guns in downtown Baltimore, we witness the cyclical nature of retail.

So farewell, Boscov's. I guess "Build it and they will come" doesn't always apply.

Ellen Marshall, a freelance writer and adult educator, lives in Baltimore. Her e-mail is marshknop@aol.com.

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