Making a Connection: Russ Baer

Like you, BMI supporter Russ Baer takes an active role in preserving objects from Baltimore’s past. Pictured here is the tweed coat he bought from the Joseph Bank side-street showroom in 1953. So what’s so special about this coat? Nothing really except it’s the most important one he ever bought.

Photos: Russ’ coat / Russ wearing his coat in school photo 1953


It is dearness only that gives everything its value.Thomas Paine 1776

I have a coat. It doesn’t fit. But it looks good (if you don’t see the lining). It doesn’t fit because it is old; but that’s wrong. It doesn’t fit because I’m old and I‘m not the same size I was in 1953 when I bought it. So what’s so special about this coat? Nothing really except it’s the most important one I ever bought and it was bought under special circumstances which could not be repeated today.

In 1953 I was a student at Baltimore Poly and at that time, ‘all Poly boys wore ties’ was the word; and lot of Poly boys even wore coats. And I didn’t have one. I sorta knew what I wanted – a Harris Tweed (can’t remember why) – but I wasn’t able to find one I liked. Where was I looking? Everywhere. Everywhere? Yes.

It was summer and I had a ‘well-paying’ summer job (35 cents per hour) at the Hecht Company’s appliance store on Fayette Street a block or so west of Charles at, or near, Hanover. That location enabled easy-walking to every important store in downtown Baltimore – Hutzler Brothers, Hochschild Kohn, Stewarts, the May Company, and The Hub as well as to numerous small clothing stores in what was then the centrally located heart of Baltimore shopping.
I thought I had been everywhere and was close to giving up when on yet another lunchtime tour…finally, I saw something I really liked…but it wasn’t a coat. It was just a bolt of material in the window of a small custom tailor on Liberty Street near Redwood. I don’t remember the name of the shop (though it was well known and highly regarded) but I do remember talking to a staff member about making a coat for me from that specific material. What? Who the hell did I think I was anyway? Well, how ‘bout a kid who wanted a coat unlike those sold at Robert Hall, that’s who. But could I afford it? It would be close, but I thought if I saved a month’s wages, I could have it done. So immediately after returning from ‘lunch’, I announced my soon-to-happen success. My quest was well known and humorously regarded by my coworkers – one of whom then asked if I had been to ‘Joe Bank’. Who – or what – was Joe Bank?
Joseph Bank was a company nearby but not on the retail ‘beaten-path’ because at the time (notice “at the time”) Bank was a respected manufacturer of clothing which they sold under numerous custom labels; but they did sell to individual customers who visited the street-side front ‘showroom’ of their factory. Oh, and they made all heir stuff right in downtown Baltimore (on Hopkins Place near Pratt Street I think). Surprisingly, Bank did not identify clothing sold directly to private customers. There was no “Joseph Bank” label for many years.
It was a beautiful day in that summer when – again on my lunch break – I walked into the Joseph Bank ‘showroom’ (one long rack at the end of a wooden floor that I remember sloped gently upward front to back). A quick look at the rack of coats and immediately I saw it. There was my coat. I finally found it! I found my coat! But there was a problem. There was only one on the rack and it didn’t fit. It was too large. But couldn’t there be a simple solution? Couldn’t Bank just make one in my size, (which was – can you believe – size 38)? Well again with a problem. The material was no longer available. It was, according to my salesman, “last years’ stock”. I was stunned. Fortunately a light bulb lit in his head. “Follow me”, he said, and I did – out to the loading dock and into the back of a large box-truck van – a truck which was loaded and was about to leave for New York City! And there … hanging with a bunch of others destined for John W. Ryan “Ryanbury Shop” – Pennsylvania Station New York” … was my coat – size 38!
Five minutes later after spending almost four weeks wages, ($35) I had the coat I wore to Poly almost every day (until I graduated in 1955) and later one time when learning to ski (obviously an impromptu event and not in severe weather), and when playing football and when falling off a motorcycle (incurring elbow damage which required me to sew leather patches). The coat showed up (actually, I showed up wearing the coat) in several of my Poly yearbook pictures – ones for the National Honor Society, the Senior Dance Committee, the Student Advisory Board and my yearbook graduation photo. And now it hangs in a closet with no other purpose than to be the treasured subject of a short memoir. There are worse roles.

REB 02/07/18

Russ’ story takes us on a walk down memory lane. Through old Baltimore. Walking with him down the street we can see the Baltimore of his youth. These memories still give him joy, and sharing them gives us joy too. His memories take us back to another time, one you can visit in-person in the BMI’s galleries. Come see us for a little nostalgia!

Visit the BMI’s Connection Factory to connect with stories that show how education, exhibitions, and partnerships strengthen our community.

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