Musician turns author for book on Hutzler's

BSO oboist Michael Lisicky turned his interest in the historic department store into a published work

September 24, 2010|By Donna M. Owens, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Michael Lisicky is accustomed to taking the stage as a second oboist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and performing for audiences worldwide. But writing a book? The very idea intimidated the lifelong musician.

So it's with some measure of awestruck glee that Lisicky, 46, has witnessed the success of his first book, "Hutzler's: Where Baltimore Shops" (History Press, 160 pages, October 2009, $19.99). It chronicles the rise and fall of the family-run department store, once an anchor of Baltimore's downtown shopping district on Lexington and Howard streets.

Equal parts history and nostalgia, complete with rare photos and recipes, the paperback book is now in its sixth printing. It's been a best-seller in the Maryland history category for months on Amazon.com.

Lisicky, a New Jersey native raised near Philadelphia, now lives in Fells Point with wife, Sandy (a fellow musician/educator), daughter Jordan and the family dog, Tillie. He is scheduled to appear Saturday at the 15th annual Baltimore Book Festival in Mount Vernon.

We caught up with the busy musician-turned-author (his second book, "Wanamaker's: Meet Me at the Eagle," is slated to arrive in bookstores soon) to discuss Hutzler's and why it was, for many Baltimoreans, a beloved institution for more than a century.

Question: What was the genesis of your book?

Answer: I never really wanted to write a book on Hutzler's. But I really wanted to buy a book on Hutzler's — perhaps my all-time favorite department store, and I've been to a lot of them. I grew up in the Philadelphia area, and my mother loved to go on car trips. She grew up in the era of the department store, so she loved taking us to different towns and cities. I was fascinated how each city had its own stores with their own identities.

Over the years, I have collected thousands of newspaper articles on department stores. They are all indexed by store, city and state and are kept on the second floor of my house. Through my association with author Jan Whitaker, History Press [in Charleston, S.C.] contacted me about the possibility of writing a book on Hutzler's.

Q: Was writing this book challenging?

A: I always fantasized about writing a book, but the whole thing just scared me to death — everything in my life has been about music. But I turned this crazy obsession into a project. It took me three manic months to interview people, collect photos and sit down and tell a story that needed to be told.

Q: Among your many interviews, one of the people you spoke with was John Waters.

A: Dozens of people have sought me out just to tell me their story about Hutzler's. I was fortunate to make contact with John Waters. He's another person that adored Hutzler's. I had a 25-minute phone interview with John, which was perhaps the most enjoyable 25 minutes of my life.

Q: What did you learn about this department store and others nationwide?

A: Hutzler's was a wonderful store that had a great run, at least up until Howard Street [downtown] and the face of urban Baltimore began to change. It started in 1858 and thrived until drastic changes in society threatened the existence of department stores all across the country. By the end of the 1960s, the social aspect of spending a day shopping and eating was ending. Discount stores offered value, convenience and free parking, ending a reason to have to go downtown.

Q: The store did expand successfully to Towson and other locations, right?

A: Hutzler's did follow customers to the suburbs. The Towson store, which opened in November 1952, was the company's best business decision. Up until the early 1980s, it was Baltimore's highest-grossing department store. Generations of suburbanites grew up in that store, and generations ate their meals in the Valley View Room. Eastpoint was next, and [Hutzler's] never understood the East Baltimore market. Westview opened in 1958 and was a great store. But it would always live in the shadow of Towson. Towson was Hutzler's baby.

Q: At one time in its history, Hutzler's didn't allow African-American customers, and you address that in the book.

A: Like many stores of that era, Hutzler's did not have an open-door policy — they would say it was dictated by the customer, which was probably a safe answer. African-Americans were working there in service [positions]. The sit-ins by Morgan State students began to change that, and by March 1960, that segregation ended. But Hochschild Kohn's was the first to open to its doors.

Q: You wrote that for Hutzler's, the end came slowly and painfully.

A: It was a longest and most painful demise of an American department store. It was a David-and-Goliath battle — other stores had investors, but Hutzler's was family owned. They just could not meet their obligations, and at one point there was no money to buy merchandise. It was rags to riches, riches to rags.

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