(Enlarge) In a photo from 1960, the Christmas tree atop the Hutzler's department store on York Road in Towson signaled the start of the holiday season. On Sunday, Hutzler's will return, sort of, when author Michael Lisicky conducts a signing of his book, "Hutzler's: Where Baltimore Shops," (shown, inset) at the Barnes & Noble at Towson Circle -- where Hutzler's once stood.(Historical photo courtesy Baltimore County Public Library)
In the 1960s and ’70s, Hutzler’s department store in Towson was the place for the holidays, where moms and dads would bring children for breakfast with Santa and to see the talking reindeer, “Tinsel” and “Beau.”
Michael Lisicky, 45, credits his own mom, Anne Lisicky, for leading him to the store from their New Jersey home when he was a child — and for leading him to write a 160-page book, “Hutzler’s: Where Baltimore Shops,” that chronicles the rise and fall of the Hutzler Bros. chain.
Anne Lisicky, who died in May at age 87, came from a generation loyal to department stores, said her son, a professional musician who has played the oboe for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 2003.
When he was small, she would take him and his two brothers on long road trips, sometimes to Philadelphia or Baltimore, just to visit department stores.
“She wasn’t a shopper,” he said, “I guess it was just her way of wandering around.”
In Baltimore, they took the Charles Street exit off the Beltway to reach stores downtown — Hutzler’s, Stewarts, Hecht’s and Hochschild Kohn.
Heading home, they took York Road so they could stop at Stewarts in Anneslie — now the Drumcastle Government Building — then Hutzler’s in Towson.
“Hutzler’s Towson was always the last stop of the Baltimore visit,” he recalled. “It seemed like such an enormous building to me, and as an out-of-towner, I knew Towson was a very important community because of all the Towson signs on the Beltway.”
Lisicky will return to the scene of those childhood memories Sunday, Dec. 6, from 2 to 4 p.m., when he conducts a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Towson.
The bookstore is, ironically, on the site where Hutzler’s once stood.
His book includes interviews with former employees, customers and officials, as well as photos from the chain’s 132-year history, which spans from its founding in 1858 by Abram Hutzler to the closing of Towson, its final store, in 1990.
Lisicky calls the Towson store, “The right store, the right place at the right time.”
“In the early 1980s it was the highest grossing department store in the Baltimore area,” he said, noting it generated $25 million in sales annually.
“If you talked about Baltimore department stores, Hutzler’s was always the first,” agreed Dan Sachs, 74, who worked at the store for 24 years, much of that time as a division merchandise manager.
“It was the biggest, always the best, and had the highest quality merchandise,” Sachs said.
The holiday season was always special at Hutzler’s Towson store, he said. Sachs, who worked for a time as a toy buyer, recalled that the store was always packed with people coming to see the window displays.
Along with decorations, Santa, talking reindeer and a tree towering over York Road atop the building, the store boasted attractions such as a holiday “men’s night,” with models and free gift-wrapping services, where gentlemen came to select presents for wives and girlfriends. Afterward they would retire to the store’s restaurant, the Valley View Room, for hors d’oeuvres and drinks.
“Sometimes they didn’t retire enough,” said Anne Benson, a former manager of the Valley View Room, who recalled those days in a 1988 interview with the Towson Times. “Many a time they got so potted they had to be carried out.”
In those days, department stores weren’t just retail establishments, they were cultural icons, and each had a definite place in the hierarchy of shopping.
Hutzler’s was at the top of the social order at a time when there was a definite social order.
As John McGrain, longtime Baltimore County historian, put it, even in hard times, “you may have bought your underwear at Brager’s or Stewarts, but you bought your outerwear at Hutzler’s.”
Working at the Towson Hutzler’s was “a joy,” said Sachs, whose wife, Sue, also worked at the store for 15 years, rising from a sales clerk to a buyer.
“You were never a number, you were a person,” he said, “and the Hutzler family treated you as if you were a member of their family.”
So what happened to the chain once held in such high regard — and which once had locations in Westview Mall, Eastpoint Mall, Security Square Mall and others?
A number of factors contributed to the long, slow decline, according to the book.
They included the Baltimore City riots in 1968, the flight of whites to the suburbs, a social revolution that led the younger generation to dismiss department stores as the place their grandparents shopped and, in part, the failure of the store’s owners to react quickly enough to change.
Over the years, Lisicky has amassed more than 5,000 newspaper articles about department stores all over the country. He has them filed in an upstairs room of the Fells Point home he shares with his wife, Sandy, and their daughter, Jordan, 10.
He has also served as a resource for a Web site, The History of Department Stores (departmentstorehistory.net), which chronicles the rise, fall and survival of the department store in America. It was through that Web site that he was asked by The History Press, based in South Carolina, to write “Hutzler’s: Where Baltimore Shops.” The book was published in October.
These days, Lisicky still supports department stores. He doesn’t think twice about driving to York, Pa., for a suit or Richmond, Va., to take advantage of Dillard’s annual 75 percent-off-sale. And with the holiday season here, he’d probably be at Hutzler’s ... if it still existed.
“I’m still loyal to the department stores, he said.
And people are still loyal to Hutzler’s.
Sachs said he and his wife met recently with Lisicky to receive a copy of the new book. As a keepsake, Lisicky presented it to them in a “Hutzler’s” bag, and as they departed, a woman came up to them suddenly and demanded:
“Where can you shop at Hutzler’s?”