Walmart follows in the tradition of Baltimore thrift

February 27, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

I was walking along Maryland Avenue the other day and scarcely ever could have envisioned a Walmart there, in my own neighborhood. I thought of a little stone chapel that sat once on the corner and considered the streetcar barn that morphed into Anderson Automotive.

Even Anderson's once-premier offering, the Oldsmobile, is on the obsolete list. Now the automotive dealer is leaving the corner, and we are promised a Lowe's and a Walmart.

It really should not be a surprise. The 25th Street corridor has moved along in the past decade or so, with a Safeway, CVS pharmacy and PNC Bank. I'd like to see someone finish the job by reopening 25th Street's old Playhouse movie theater.

The arrival of another Walmart in Baltimore follows a long tradition of merchants who cater to the city's memorably thrifty shoppers. Baltimoreans excel at buying at low prices. We are the Nickel City, the cheap guy. We are flat-out afraid to seem extravagant.

I often admired the faith in our retail economy when some merchant rolled into Baltimore with fancy goods. Our first thought: "When will you mark that down?"

A variant of Baltimore thrift is the low inventory routinely carried by businesses. How many times have you heard, "We're out of that today"? I think places delight in not carrying what they should. I chuckled the other day when, at an otherwise delightful luncheon at the Maryland Club, we were told there were no oysters to be had. I said to myself: Baltimore, February, no oysters?

We love coupons, bargain matinees, Goodwills and Value Villages, reduced-price drinks at happy hours, off-season vacations and early-bird dining specials. Don't even talk about the recent Restaurant Week. Despite the snow and the recession, our local restaurants had lines.

I've engaged in a considerable amount of Walmart observing in and out of Baltimore. I've noticed that we Baltimoreans can fill up a shopping cart with the best of them. There are those who say they will never shop in a Walmart. Maybe it's more accurate to say they prefer not to shop in a Walmart, but I'll bet you'll find them there. I've heard people say they won't patronize the Walmarts in and around Baltimore, but they prefer to drive to Shrewsbury, Pa., for the shopping experience there.

Baltimoreans love to reminisce about shopping at fancier stores - O'Neill's, Hutzler's and Stewart's - but you didn't want to be in their way when the lower-price stores, Gutman's or Brager's, ran a sale.

I think of so many cut-prices houses: Epstein's, Gem, Topp's, E.J. Korvette's, Montgomery Ward and Value City. I remember some really odd joints: Ellis of Broadway, Shocket's, C-Mart and Conkling Salvage Exchange and Foam Center. There was a sense of delight when these store owners scored a buying coup in New York City and were able to sell ritzy goods at the bottom-of-the-cellar prices Baltimoreans would accept. Remember when a mere rumor of Kate Spade handbags drew lines to C-Mart?

The day Nordstrom Rack opened in Towson, I heard shoppers there compare it to Bernheimer's basement, a department store that closed in 1927. The Rack was mobbed. I've always seen lines at this basement store that the main, full-price store upstairs does not enjoy.

There is a good side to all this. We remain unpretentious here and like it that way. And we love to remind ourselves that we don't really need all that fancy stuff.

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