Old Curiosity Shop Of Lighting Is Parceled Out To New Generation

March 01, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

I cannot say that L.A. Herstein was the oldest, continuously operated, family-owned business on what was once Baltimore's busiest shopping street. Certainly auctioneer Dan Billig thought so when he stepped before a portable microphone and called for bids for the building at 877 N. Howard St., for so many decades the Louis A. Herstein Co.

All my life Herstein's was Baltimore's old curiosity shop of lamp parts, repairs and outdated electrical parts. Maybe it was an urban legend, but it was always rumored that Louis Arthur Herstein III had stuff in his basement that came straight from the Edison Laboratories. Louis died at age 81 this past Oct. 16. His widow, Natalie, who sat in his shop as it was auctioned Wednesday, decided it was time to relinquish the business. The real estate brought $137,500. The inventory - all that stuff - another $2,500.

Among those observing the bidding was Mark Zimin, who has taken up the cause of old lamp repair at Wilson Heritage in Towson. He, too, was a friend of Louis Herstein and revered his patience with frayed cords and broken switches.

How many of us at one time or another carted broken lamps and sconces to the Herstein Electrical Hospital? I recall, in recent years, Louis' occasional working hours (Friday, Saturday and Monday) and his modest charges for repairs. His wife told me that after a stroke, he was not able to drive, but the store was his therapy. "He needed this," she said. "He'd sit here for days and nobody would come in."

She said that her husband vowed to keep his family's business open. When his mother died, he stepped in - as his own career as a Navy civilian employee was ending. An acoustician - he had a physics degree from the University of Maryland, College Park - he jumped into the business his ancestors founded in the early years of the 20th century. Some members of the family were electrical contractors and put the wiring in blocks of rowhouses; others ran the retail end, the parts, the lampshades and repairs.

The Howard Street building housed a packed-and-jammed emporium typical of old drowsy downtown Baltimore. The owner always thought there was one of what you needed in the basement, but finding it might take a week. I ventured past a bulging rolltop desk and a dusty rotary dial phone and descended a staircase to view the staggering subterranean electrical parts graveyard. No part was ever thrown away, and nothing was ever organized into neat sections, either.

A neighbor, Natalie Tao, who has a day care center and children's academy next door (in the old Harris auction gallery), put the winning bid in for the building. Its safe, which Herstein never locked, will go to another neighboring business, Amos Judd and Sons.

The job of removing the inventory goes to its enthusiastic buyer, Keith Kitts, owner of the Housewerks architectural salvage empire on Bayard Street. He has a very organized Web site, so maybe the Herstein hoard will be beat into regimentation. "The basement had new stock electrical parts that were over 100 years old," Kitts told me later in the week after he had a chance to begin digging. "Everything old in here is going to be reused," he vowed.


Find previous columns by Jacques Kelly at baltimoresun.com/kelly

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