Leo Amster

The owner of a men's formalwear establishment served for many years as the unofficial mayor of Catonsville.

September 18, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Leo Amster, the former owner of Leo Amster's Formal Wear and a well-known figure who was known as Catonsville's unofficial mayor, died Monday at the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center & Hospital of complications from a fall. He was 89.

Mr. Amster was born in Richmond, Va., and raised in Mount Olive, N.C., where his father owned and operated a small department store.

After graduating from Mount Olive High School, he enlisted in the Army and served in counterintelligence during World War II.

He moved to Baltimore in 1946, when he and a brother opened a food market at Garrison Boulevard and Liberty Heights Avenue.

After a fire destroyed the grocery, Mr. Amster moved to Catonsville and opened a men's clothing store on Frederick Road in 1955.

A decade later, he expanded to a larger store across the street, and by the late 1960s, he began specializing in men's and boys' formal evening wear for sale or rent.

"He was approached by After Six to open a rental tux store," said a daughter, Louise A. Weinberg of Owings Mills.

In the 1970s, Mr. Amster expanded the business when he opened a bridal and formalwear store in Loch Raven Plaza. In the 1980s, he established Leo Amster Ltd. in the 7500 block of Ritchie Highway and a bridal store in Catonsville.

"He was called 'Mr. Formal,' and will be buried wearing his black tuxedo," said Mrs. Weinberg, who helped run the business for many years. "He was a very traditional guy and a true haberdasher."

Gifted with an amiable and easygoing personality, Mr. Amster enjoyed the crowds of politicians, athletes, clergy, wedding parties and high school kids who jammed the store to be fitted for dinner jackets and trousers, cummerbunds, shirts with wing collars or without, and a quick lesson on how to tie a bow tie.

Sixty-hour, six-day workweeks were not uncommon, Mrs. Weinberg said.

"We were also open two nights a week, and the only day he had off was Sunday, and that's when he spent time with his family," she said.

Greg Philipowitz, who began managing the Catonsville store in 1981, later purchased the business when Mr. Amster retired in 1993.

"I needed a job, and Leo hired me as a salesman, and he was one great, great guy to work for and was a very special person," Mr. Philipowitz said. "He was so popular in Catonsville that he couldn't walk two feet on the sidewalk without someone yelling, 'Hey, Leo!' "

He said Mr. Amster always went the "extra mile" for his customers.

"Customer service was everything to him," Mr. Philipowitz said. "One time, we had fitted a party for a wedding that was taking place in a small upstate New York town."

The next day, Mr. Amster noticed one of the ushers had forgotten to take his formal shirt.

"Leo got right on the phone and finally found an operator in the little upstate New York town who had heard about the wedding," he said.

"She was able to direct him to the wedding party, and they were stunned to hear his voice - plus, he had found a shop where the guy could pick up a replacement shirt," Mr. Philipowitz said. "And he had done it all by phone."

Mr. Amster was active in many community activities, including serving as president of the Catonsville Business Association and on its board for 12 years.

Because he also participated in local and Baltimore County politics, his store became a clearinghouse for news and gossip, and was the place local residents went to air their grievances and find solutions to their problems.

Even though Catonsville is unincorporated and there is no elected mayor, Mr. Amster readily filled that role.

For years, he and other Frederick Road businessmen would gather in the morning to discuss local issues over cups of coffee at Moss' Drug Store (and later at Jenning's Cafe, after the pharmacy closed in the late 1970s).

"The approach was that when I walked in, they'd all say, 'Good morning, mayor,' " Mr. Amster told The Catonsville Times in a 1980 interview. "It just pyramided one thing on top of the other and just grew."

So popular was Mr. Amster that letters addressed to the "Mayor of Catonsville" were routinely delivered by the post office to his store.

"And through the years, he adds, people with plans to move to the area would write concerning schools, shopping areas and taxes," reported The Catonsville Times. "All the letters would be addressed to the mayor of Catonsville or some other town official, and all the letters would be forwarded to Mr. Amster."

"They finally began tailing off in the late 1980s because the business association became the Chamber of Commerce, and they expanded their base from Frederick Road," Mr. Philipowitz said. "Frederick Road was no longer the hub."

Mr. Amster enjoyed spending winters in Hollywood, Fla., and spending time with his family and grandchildren, family members said.

He had also been an avid Colts fan.

A resident of Pikesville for 60 years, he was a member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation.

Services were Tuesday.

Also surviving are his wife of 60 years, the former Hilda Shaivitz; another daughter, Emily A. Goren of Owings Mills; and four grandchildren.

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