fe_hechts_mj06

0
54

On a busy Saturday at the Hecht Co. in Towson, a paunchy man, cell phone in hand and a return under one arm, bustles unheedingly through the door I’m holding open. Eyeing him, a pretty blown-out blonde— her pointy-toed shoes peeking out from under flared jeans— shares an annoyed shake of the head with me. There are mothers and daughters of all ages with shopping bags— and a few sons too, one with a thick hoop protruding from his lower lip. I hear Baltimore “hons,” a few vaguely Southern “y’alls” and language I think might be Farsi spoken by a mother to her beautiful black-haired daughters.

Everyone seems to be clutching paper coupons or colorful store fliers, and everywhere are signs. 1 Day Sale! Take 10% off! Take an extra 50% off!

“It looks like everything is on sale,” I say to no one in particular.

“Well, it’s going to be a Macy’s,” says the plump woman shopping next to me in the linens department. “They’re getting rid of everything,” she nearly shrieks before she hurries away to scavenge for bargains in the next row of bath towels. In July 2005, Hecht’s parent company, Federated Department Stores Inc., announced it would change over all of the stores under its wide umbrella— including Hecht’s, as well as venerable names such as Marshall Fields in Chicago and Filene’s in Boston— to Macy’s. By the end of this summer, all Hecht’s stores throughout the Baltimore area will be history.

“Do customers care that the store is turning into a Macy’s?” I ask the woman behind the makeup counter a few minutes later.

“It’s about 50-50,” she tells me.

As I wander through the three floors of the Towson Hecht’s, I wonder why 50 percent of the customers will miss it. To me, Hecht’s is the kind of place you go to buy essentials like bath towels and underwear. It’s not at all glamorous. For those of us who never experienced it, it’s hard to imagine the pink-and-black granite entrance of the Hecht-May building downtown, getting dressed up to go downtown to see the Christmas windows, or wearing white gloves to lunch in The Courtyard dining room, with its recreation of turn-of-the-century Aisquith Street.

On this Saturday at the Towson Hecht’s, piles of AK and Reebok shoeboxes are stacked six high— a far cry from a 1937 advertisement for the new Hecht’s at Baltimore and Pine streets that promised “brilliant displays and not a shoebox in sight.” I imagine, too, that the tightly packed racks of satin prom dresses in no way resemble the “great spaciousness” promised by the same ad, nor the intended chic of the women’s department at the 1956 opening of the Edmondson Avenue store, with its “dream forest appearance” conjured by chandeliers and columns. In a 1960 Christmas catalog called the Holiday Gift Fashionata, Hecht’s offered a “Stewart Autumn Haze natural mink full length coat” from its fur salon; now it sells pastel windbreakers, parkas and rows upon rows of track suits.

Hecht’s in Towson doesn’t even have the dated funkiness of the old Golden Ring store, where, as a child, I was fascinated by the concrete, turret-like dressing rooms in the girls department that were as round and tubular as the lowercase letters in the company’s then-new 1974 logo.

So what is there to miss about Hecht’s? A history as colorful as the satin prom dresses jammed onto that rack.

Four out of five of Sam Hecht’s sons worked at some point for their father’s business, but most crucial to the stores’ success was the savvy of son Moses, who was, by all accounts, a classic and creative entrepreneur. A 1948 article in the Baltimore American reports that, at 9 years old, Moses “took a wagon down to the wharfs [sic] and purchased a load of cantaloupes at one cent each [and] peddled them door to door for a nickel.” The same article explains that once, when a customer wanting to purchase a wedding suit came into a Hecht’s store that offered only furniture, Moses rushed into another establishment, bought a suit and sold it to the customer for $30. Another time, when he didn’t have in stock a suit large enough to bury a broadly built sea captain, he simply cut the suit up the back, reasoning that only the man’s front would be seen in the coffin.

Moses Hecht began working at Hecht’s Reliable when he was 13, dropping out of school to do so, and in six months, he was doing most of the purchasing for the men’s clothing department. By age 15, he was promoted to general manager, and during his first year, according to Hecht’s, “brought the great- est volume and profits the store had known.” One way he did this was by innovating new pricing and purchasing models. Prior to the Civil War, the price customers would pay for an item in many stores was determined by whatever store clerks estimated they could pay. In the 1890s, Moses introduced the one-price-per-item policy (based on a practice started by John Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia), effectively fixing the price of merchandise regardless of whom was purchasing it. He also was instrumental in fashioning Hecht’s credit program.

Early on in its history, Hecht’s heavily marketed itself as the store where purchases could be made on the “deferred payment plan.” It’s unclear if Hecht’s was the first store to develop this policy, as all of the local department stores exercised very liberal credit, return/exchange and delivery policies in order to maintain customer loyalty. Still, Hecht’s small cardboard trade cards, often decorated with illustrations of pretty girls, woodland scenes or exotic flowers and birds, offered “very low prices” and “all the credit you want.” A trade card for the Hecht’s at 368 Baltimore St. between Eutaw and Paca promised “prices that will astound you” and urged customers “to call and get our Prices and Terms” even “if you are not yet ready to Buy.” And the Hecht Furniture House announced “sensationally low prices” and a “liberal credit plan” on its suites of perfHECHTion Furniture by “adjusting payments to fit individual incomes.” A plethora of ads featuring low prices and offering credit would follow well into the 21st century.

At the end of the 19th century, however, Hecht and his sons were opening stores with dizzying speed. There was a Hecht Bros. at Baltimore and Pine streets, and a Hecht’s Carpet and Matting store at 310 W. Lexington. A Hecht’s Greater Store opened in Washington, D.C., in 1896, and in 1900, Hecht Bros. opened in New York City. The Hub, a six-story Hecht’s store featuring slightly more upscale clothing than that available at Hecht’s Reliable, opened at the corner of Baltimore and Light streets in 1897. When The Hub burned in the Great Fire of 1904, a new, fourstory building was built at Baltimore and Charles streets.

In 1926, an advertisement in the News-Post announced a preview of another “Beautiful New Store” from Hecht’s (complete with “Music! Souvenirs!”). In careful prose, as if anticipating the confusion about the profusion of stores, the ad describes the consolidation of two Hecht Furniture Stores, one at 930-938 Charles St., the other at 3117-3119 Greenmount, to a new “handsome, centrally located store,” the Hecht Furniture House on Howard Street, between Mulberry and Franklin streets. “To lessen the confusion …,” the ad explained, HFH had purchased an electric “Glodial” chime clock that rang the Westminster chime on every half-hour. Customers shopping downtown were urged to meet “at the center of the block at the Hecht chime clock.”

Hecht’s never did seem to slow down. By 1933, there was a Hecht’s in Easton, then Silver Spring. The suburban Northwood branch opened in 1954, touting rooftop parking and the Roof Top restaurant (open seven days a week), and the midcentury modern Edmondson store quickly followed in 1956, to service the western suburbs. A merger with The May Co. in 1959 moved the flagship store to Howard and Lexington streets, where The Hecht Co. joined other local chains Hutzler Bros., Hochschild-Kohn and Stewart’s to form the axis of downtown Baltimore shopping. In the early 1960s, a branch was added at the tony new Reisterstown Road Plaza.

Stores all over Maryland followed, from Salisbury to Harford County, Columbia to Golden Ring. When the Towson store opened in 1982, just after an extensive $3.5 million renovation of the Lexington and Howard store, it was heralded by The Evening Sun as the “new Hecht’s local flagship store— a position once reserved only for the downtown site.” Seven years later, the downtown store would close, and now, 17 years later, Hecht’s itself will be no more.

Ask folks in Baltimore about the heydays of the downtown department stores and they will likely tell you, “We shopped at Hutzler’s …”

“Hutzler’s is the big ghost in the room and it sometimes eclipses the history of other Baltimore department stores,” says Melissa Martens, a curator at the Jewish Museum of Maryland who created “Enterprising Emporiums,” an exhibit devoted to the Jewish department stores of downtown Baltimore, on display at the museum from 2001 to 2003. Hutzler’s, Martens explains, was known for its social atmosphere— there was a book where shoppers could leave messages for each other— and its architectural grandeur, like the balcony overlooking Saratoga Street.

“When I think of Hecht’s, I think of how prolific the company was, the extent of its reach even beyond Baltimore, its longevity,” says Martens. “There were just so many stores that were Hecht’s,” she continues, which means sometimes it’s hard to focus memories on one particular shopping experience.

My father clearly remembers his mother buying his eighth grade graduation suit— a brown pinstripe— at Hecht’s Reliable on Broadway, one of the company’s earliest stores. His sister, Mary Benskie, remembers shopping there as a child in the ’30s. “The ladies and children’s clothes were on the second floor,” she recalls. “My mother would take us shopping at Easter time to get an outfit. You would get a coat and a dress and a hat— you weren’t dressed up unless you wore a hat.”

My aunt also remembers browsing at The Hub during lunch breaks from her bookkeeping job for a steamship company at Baltimore and Calvert, and buying a living room set on credit from the Hecht’s on Howard Street. “They never charged interest like they do now,” she explains. The store would give you a booklet similar to a bank passbook, and you would pay $1 or $2 a month, which would be marked in your book. There might have even been a little discount if you paid within 90 days.

Along the same lines, John Sondheim, manager of planning for the Enoch Pratt Free Library and son of Walter Sondheim, a former executive with Hochschild-Kohn, associates Hecht’s with being “big on furniture” and having “better housewares”— rather than being a fashion pioneer.

Candra Healy, Melody Gordon-Healy and Alice Ross, three generations of women in Charles Village, have shopped at Hecht’s at different times for different reasons, but all proclaim a fierce loyalty to the store.

Candra, a self-proclaimed “Hecht’s groupie,” loves the sales. “The price structure is great,” she enthuses. “If you want to spend $10, you can. If you want to spend more, you can. Macy’s is not as aggressive in discounts.”

Her mother, Melody, is more sentimental about the high quality of service the Hecht Co. offered customers. When she and her husband moved into their home 34 years ago, she explained, her husband went to Hecht’s downtown to order curtains. “The sales staff didn’t trust his measurements,” she says. “So they came out to re-measure; they made up the curtains; and they came back and hung them. We just took down the rods two years ago, and the curtains fell apart 10 years ago, but that was 24 years of curtains!”

For Alice Ross, Gordon-Healy’s mother, the appreciation for service runs even deeper. Although she fondly recalls the thrill of riding the elevators at Hecht’s and the beauty of the store’s Christmas windows (“they were really gorgeous”), as an African-American shopper in the era of segregation, Ross stresses that her loyalty to Hecht’s derives from her belief that Hecht’s “treated you a little bit nicer” than the other department stores. Although the major Baltimore department stores (under pressure from the Congress of Racial Equity and the Civic Interest Group) changed their policies in 1960 to become integrated, Ross remembers that Hecht’s was the most accommodating in letting African-American customers try on or return clothing. It is because of experiences like this, her daughter explains, that many African-Americans feel real loyalty to Hecht’s.

Former employees also have fond memories of their work at Hecht’s. Baltimorean Pat Trimp began working in customer relations and credit at The Hub in 1944 in a navy blue dress uniform she made herself, and stayed with the company for 43 years because she enjoyed the work so much. Mildred McLean, who operated the elevator to the Roof Top restaurant at Northwood in the late ’50s, remembers the kindness of a customer who brought her crab cakes to eat during her break. After a stint at Hochschild’s Belvedere, McLean began working at Hecht-May and retired only recently from the china department of Hecht’s Towson.

If you think about it, Hecht’s is a survivor, the sole locally founded store to make it into the 21st century. Stewart’s closed all its stores in 1985. Hochschild- Kohn, known, among other things, for its top-rate bookstore, closed its Belvedere store in 1979, its other outlets quickly following. And Hutzler’s, the grande dame of locally owned Baltimore department stores, closed its last branch in 1990.

If the other chains were the elegant doyennes of Baltimore shopping, Hecht’s was the plucky working-class shopgirl— relying on the methods pioneered by Moses Hecht, pulling herself up by her bootstraps and constantly reinventing herself. If for nothing else, Hecht’s is worthy of remembering, and worthy of missing.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here