Musings, Opinion

The Fire at Howard and Lexington

Department store Le Bon Marche Paris France
Image via Wikipedia

Michael Lisicky, an oboist with Baltimore’s Symphony Orchestra, stood addressing a sizable crowd of interested onlookers at Enoch Pratt Library’s Roland Park branch. His subject, Hutzlers Department Store.  Mr. Lisicky appeared a bit nervous but passionate about his subject, in a lecture which lasted about an hour.  Throughout his speech, he continually referenced interviews, resources, and random facts that kept the entire audience engaged.

One reason I decided to attend Mr. Lisicky’s lecture was my sincere interest in the history of the grand department store. Hutzler’s, along with other such grand dames of the same period: Hecht’s, Hoschild’s, and Stewart’s, was a major part of the Baltimore landscape for well over a hundred years. You’d be hard-pressed to find a family, whose roots originate in Baltimore who didn’t shop in one or all of those stores prior to the 1990’s.  I attended The Peabody Conservatory in those days and what I remember most was my mother picking my sister and me up from dance class and  how we’d walk downtown to Howard and Lexington Streets. We would wander through Stewart’s for hours, sometimes not buying a thing but still enjoying the ambiance of the store.

What I am struck by, as I listen to Michael Lisicky describe his obsession with the American department store, is the recurring theme of family, customer service, and the eventual “writing on the wall”, the demise of the downtown department store. While I  was well aware of the effects urbanization had on the downtown economy, having myself defected to Towson Mall, I was left with the question; “what became of the family dynasty and the model of customer service founded by the original giants?” Has our need to get things fast and the general disconnect which has become the norm encouraged an atmosphere in which old-fashioned values of customer service and human interaction is obsolete? Admittedly, I too rarely  interact with others when shopping. When my local natural food market adopted a self-check out structure, it was as if someone had taken a snapshot of my utopian world and made it a reality. I no longer have to communicate with anyone in order to manage my daily life.  In business, with “go to meetings,” podcasts, and expanded e-mail technology, I rarely have to meet with a client in person, the management of my children’s activities is all handled electronically, even my banking is done without human contact; last week I deposited a check by scanning it with my Blackberry. My reclusive disposition aside, is this progress?

Upon reading about Michael Lisicky’s lecture, my dear friend and former guest writer on this blog, Trent Spriggs wrote,”Two things come to mind: the demise of family businesses (closely held/world-wide)that don’t go to equity markets (Wall Street) for support and also connectivity or example, NY had the Erie Canal and proximity to Europe for immigrants, whereas Baltimore did not… I wonder what the current author would say about the future prospects of Charm City….”  Of the latter thought, a historian attending Michael Lisicky’s speech posed  a similar question. Mr. Lisicky responded much as I would have; with the changing mindset of the American consumer and our need to have everything fast, it would be impossible to create the level of interaction nod connectivity obvious during the day of Hutzler’s

As for Charm City, while there has been genuine attempts to revitalize and recapture downtown, what has been successful has not been retail but real-estate. Most of the properties which once housed designer clothing and home goods, now houses condominiums, targeting young doctors, entrepreneurs, and social networkers, most too young to have witnessed or to appreciate earlier contributions of the Hutzler, Hoschild, and Stewart families.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

There are very few department stores remaining that would fit into Mr. Spriggs’ category of family owned, non-Wall Street, and connected. The closest I could recall and certainly a favorite of mine as I believe it to be the first, is Le Bon Marche‘(Paris).  But even LBM was purchased some years ago by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH). One American staple, Crate and Barrel, founded in boston by Gordon Segal, does fit the bill. Crate and Barrel, with its simplistic design and straight forward pricing is still family owned and still relies on customer interaction as a driving force. There is a location in Towson and the company seems to be flourishing despite he current economic climate.

Perhaps the contributions of the “grande negozios” are forever lost. Perhaps the families of Hutzler, Hoschild, and Hechts are content with being innovators of style and service, and have resigned to the idea of fading into obscurity. But what I believe is this: ghosts are funny; in culture after culture, innovators of the past linger on to remind us of what is good in us (human interaction), what is bad in us (segregation), and was is possible in us. I would hope that any innovation, even those that discourage human connectivity, would contribute to the stability of the American family and encourage tolerance and peace among us all.


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