Conkling Salvage's Owner Calls It A Day

Discount Store Born In '30s Depression Done In By Today's Slow Times

July 18, 2009|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,

The shelves at the Conkling Salvage Exchange and Foam Center in Highlandtown once were chock-full of merchandise ranging from silk flowers and Christmas decorations to coffin handles. Now only the shelves themselves are for sale.

After 70 years in neighborhood corner store retailing, owner Stanford J. Schneider says it's time to go. The store founded in the depths of the Great Depression is a victim of the Great Recession.

"When I open at 9:30 and there are no customers before noon, it's time to close," he said the other day as he stood in the empty store. Old customers, alarmed by the sudden appearance of the vacant showroom windows, stopped by to see what was the matter.

"I can't say that I'm happy about closing. I'm not. I'll miss the people," Schneider, 80, said.

Conkling Salvage Exchange was the C-Mart of Highlandtown, buying up odd lots and out-of-season merchandise to resell at cheap prices. But the core business, the sale of foam material for boat seats, has fallen off drastically in recent months.

"Last summer was the worst we ever had," Schneider said. "People couldn't afford to put fuel in their boats."

The store at the corner of Conkling Street and Claremont Avenue was started about 1930 by Schneider's uncle, Mike Lipman, who bought inventories of bankrupt businesses and resold them at affordable prices.

"Seventy-five years later, I'm living in a time of depression, the same as he was," Schneider said.

Schneider began working in the store when he was 9 or 10, helping out on Saturdays. After graduating from City College and spending two years in the Army, he came back to the store and worked alongside his uncle until Lipman died 35 years ago. Schneider says he had planned to retire years ago and pass the store to his son, Jay. But Jay's death in 1990 crushed those plans.

Until it closed on June 27, the Conkling Salvage Exchange and Foam Center offered a little bit of everything, always on the cheap.

"It was an attraction to our neighborhood and it was always a colorful store. You were treated like a king or queen," said Pat Tirabassi Picarello, who grew up in the neighborhood and still works there. "The bargains were absolutely terrific. And if you were a neighbor, you got special treatment. Stan was a very generous man."

City Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo agreed that Schneider was one reason folks patronized the store. "He is well-respected, and people trust him," D'Adamo said. "People just enjoyed going in the store and talking to him. He is a gentleman. When he would eat at the Eastern House, people would come up to his table."

One time a local coffin maker went out of business and Schneider bought some of the inventory. Within a month or so, sturdy bronze coffin handles began appearing on the homemade toolboxes his customers carried to construction jobs. Others bought the velvet used in coffin linings and turned them into draperies and slipcovers.

"People were willing to do their own work," Schneider said. "They weren't so particular because they didn't have the money to be particular with."

He'd also buy window awnings that had been ordered but not picked up at Sears and Montgomery Ward and resell them to his customers.

"The colors didn't always match but there was not a problem if the green one went on the front of the house and blue ones went on the back," Schneider said.

At one point he sold black tar roof coating in six-gallon drums, when the industry standard was a five-gallon drum. His supplier bought used containers from the old Meadow Gold ice cream company, steamed out the chocolate and vanilla and refilled them with roofing pitch. The stuff sold well because the price was right and there was a bonus gallon included.

Conkling Salvage was the place to turn to when sagging sofa cushions needed new foam. In its heyday, the store carried saws and hammers, and occasionally shoes.

"The shoes may not have been in style, but you put them on your feet and they'll keep you dry and warm," Schneider said.

The store was also known for Christmas decorations that Schneider bought from an importer in New York City. He'd go up Dec. 26 and acquire all the man's samples and surplus inventory, which would then be sent to Baltimore and sit stacked to the ceiling in a Highlandtown garage until the next December.

"It was beautiful stuff made in Germany and Czechoslovakia. Nobody would believe it would be selling on Conkling Street. Once the word got around we had mobs of people in here," Schneider said.

His Christmas business was so big he bought a rowhouse next door and had the gas supply lines and heating cut off to minimize expenses. He kept the electricity on and filled its first floor with lighted artificial trees. He'd bring a customer in, tap on a treadle and the trees would light up. In a few minutes he'd be putting a sold tree in a customer's car.

Schneider attended auctions of distressed merchandise. The managers of the old Read's drugstores knew to call Schneider when they had a surplus of unsold Christmas cards and gift wrap.

While today's hard times would seem perfect for a store like Conkling Foam, business has dropped so much that he can no longer afford to keep it open.

"We lost a lot of our suppliers," Schneider said. "There was just no merchandise a small man could buy."

He also said that "people are different," explaining that his customers do not seem to want to do the hard work around the house they once did.

Now Schneider said he is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Sylvia, and do some work teaching others how to cut foam for furniture.

"I also intend to take it easy for a while, and maybe do some volunteer work," he said. "The doctor told me the other day, 'Don't forget your age even if you don't look it.' "

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