I often tell December stories about downtown Baltimore and the department stores at Howard and Lexington streets. But to be honest, I've spent many more Decembers shopping along Greenmount Avenue in Waverly.
There is a homey charm about the little village of neighborhood shops set around churches and a firehouse. I can see a 1950s December night, a wet snow falling, with a Baltimore Transit Co. electric snow sweeper clearing a path for the yellow streetcars behind it, grinding up the hill toward St. John's Episcopal Church. The family at Butcher's grocery store would be out selling balsams. There would be a fire blazing in an oil drum. Two of us would carry a tree home.
Shopping on a child's budget was comfortable in Waverly. The local retailing giants were pretty tame. Woolworth's had big counters of blown-glass ornaments, arranged in compartments with little signs advertising them for 10 cents or a quarter. As a child, the wares sold here, and at the National five-and-dime in the Waverly Tower Shopping Center, were what I could afford to give as presents. A 50-cent piece bought a bag of treats from the Martha Washington Candy Shop. A quarter got you into the Boulevard or Waverly theater for whatever Disney was offering that year.
Not everything was small-town. We had excellent toy and apparel stores. You could drop a wad - if you wanted to - at some of the stores along old Greenmount Avenue. Baltimore's neighborhood stores were not as fancy as the big guys downtown. But shopping in these low-key, close-to-home places created experiences I'll never surrender. You were never rushed and pushed; about the only hassle was crossing Greenmount when it was a major traffic artery.
The holiday season is all about continuity, getting cards from old friends and seldom-seen cousins. And in the case of old Waverly, it's all pretty much still there physically, with everything that 50 years have added, subtracted and multiplied. On Saturday mornings when I walk there, I often stop and consider how little it has changed and how much it's changed. Its overall tone remains constant. You'll never confuse it with Nantucket.
One of the things that has not changed is today's annual Christmas bazaar at St. John's, known today as St. John's in the Village at Greenmount and Old York Road. It is one of the featured attractions of a neighborhood event and window-decorating contest staged by Waverly Main Street. I was delighted to see promotional literature asking for people to walk from 28th Street to 36th Street along Greenmount today as part of a shop local promotion.
I marvel at how well Baltimore reinvents and restrengthens itself. If Woolworth's is no more, and the movie theater partitioned into, among other things, a pawnshop, we have other venues. I will spend an hour this morning at the Waverly Farmers' Market with all its assorted vendors who put up their tents and stalls. This year, more people are selling live trees, a service I appreciate and one that reminds me of how many times I've hailed a cab and tossed an 8-footer in the trunk.
Kerosene heaters have replaced the oil drums filled with burning pine branches. But some things defy change: Those bells in St. John's spire ring out the quarter-hours of one more season in the old Waverly village.