Nearly 40 years ago, I learned that Baltimoreans never tire of tales about the stores where they shopped. At that time, I made a small career out of writing about the Bernheimer-Leader retailing empire at Howard and Fayette streets. The building is now an apartment house called the Atrium.
About a year ago, I was contacted by Michael Lisicky, whose book on Hutzler's came out last year and whose John Wanamaker ( Philadelphia) opus is due for publication in a few months.
A Fells Point resident and member of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Lisicky is writing a history for the Fells Point newsletter about a place called Hecht's Reliable, on the east side of Broadway between Eastern and Fleet streets. The store closed more than 50 years ago, but it remains a presence because the building and its sign still exist. Bronze lettering was set into the concrete paving by the store.
"Like many immigrants who settled in Fells Point in the 1840s, Samuel Hecht Jr. left the port of Bremen, Germany, in 1844 for the land of prosperity," Lisicky said. Hecht named his business "Broadway Furniture Stores, and by 1879 expanded into clothing and Hecht's Reliable Stores at 519 S. Broadway. A son, Moses, took to the family business, and by 1890 had instituted 'deferred payment plan,' a practice that became a hallmark at all of Hecht's businesses," Lisicky said.
Hecht's Reliable was an important anchor to Fells Point's business center. The family expanded its business and opened Hecht Brothers furniture store at Baltimore and Pine in 1885 and the Hub clothing store at Baltimore and Charles in 1897. Hecht's Reliable continued to operate under separate management from the other Hecht businesses. In 1914, Hecht's Reliable acquired 517 S. Broadway and enlarged its store. At that time, a unified brick facade was built to cover the store's four floors.
The store's motto was "50 feet from Broadway Market." Hecht's Reliable was an early version of a rent-to-own store. Lisicky said that most of the store's advertisements featured items at a "per weekly" payment plan. In 1920, a player piano was advertised at $3.50 a week; Victrolas (early record players) were 50 cents to $1 a week.
The store fit into the Broadway shopping district. Nearby were a Read's drugstore, a Woolworth's, Taubman's auto supplies, Obrecht tobacco, Lakein jewelry, Goldenberg's variety stores and Arundel ice cream.
The Hecht family continued to open other types of retail businesses throughout Baltimore, as well as in Washington and on the Eastern Shore. The family viewed Hecht's Reliable as a separate entity from its other clothing and furniture stores. By the late 1940s, Hecht's Reliable offered "everything to wear for men, women, boys and girls, also radios, electric washing machines and tires."
The company decided to consolidate all its different store names in Baltimore as the Hecht Co. in 1951. The Fells Point stores were excluded from this action, so to avoid confusion, the Broadway store was renamed Broadway Reliable Stores. On Oct. 14, 1958, the Hecht Co. announced that it was being purchased by the May Co. The Fells Point Reliable store was not part of the deal, Lisicky said, adding that Fells Point was no longer the strong shopping area that it once had been. By the time the store closed in 1958, Broadway Reliable Stores contributed less than 3 percent of the total sales for all Hecht stores, he said.
The building housed a number of other enterprises. For a while it was a John's Bargain Stores branch. In 1976, Leo Shapiro purchased the store and opened a Food Town outlet. In 1996, Shapiro sold the store to Save-A-Lot food stores, and it continued to operate until 2006. The Save-A-Lot chain followed a very strict merchandise offering and the store found itself unable to carry the proper merchandise for the area's burgeoning Latino community. Family Food Mart currently operates in the building.
"Remnants of Hecht's Reliable survive today," Lisicky said. He found that the Reliable's first floor is completely altered, but the second floor's original tin ceiling survives. Ornate lighting fixtures endure on the third floor, and the original safe is still in place. The fourth floor contains the old fur salon cabinets, in addition to the original employee break rooms. On the south side of the building, a fading, painted "Hecht's" sign dating from the 1920s is visible.
"Most importantly, the name 'Hecht's Reliable Stores' is visibly etched in the building's cornice work. It is a reminder of Fells Point's important role as a leading business center and a monument to one of the more powerful names in American retailing," he said.