Michal Makarovich was one of the last merchants in Baltimore who regularly put elaborate displays in the front window of his store, but now he says those days are over.
Makarovich and associate Adrian Monaco created the final window display this week to signal that their business, Hampden Junque, is closing its physical storefront permanently and becoming an online shop.
The window contains a figure of Pee-wee Herman, the fictional character, all by himself, with none of the quirky merchandise from the store that usually surrounds him.
A version of Pee-wee Herman has found its way into every display since Hampden Junque opened in 1995–six to eight different displays a year, nearly 200 in all. The shop has three different-sized replicas of the Paul Reubens character, and a challenge for regulars was to find Pee-wee whenever the display changed, like a Baltimore version of “Where’s Waldo?”
“Pee-wee has been our unofficial mascot over the years,” Makarovich explains. “It’s only fitting that he be in the final window. He’s been in all the others.”
After 25 years at 1006 W. 36th St., Hampden Junque is making the transition from a brick-and-mortar store to an online emporium this week. Makarovich said he decided to make the change because of the uncertainly over the store’s future due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The store was forced to close in mid-March, when Gov. Larry Hogan required non-essential retail businesses to shut down to help fight COVID-19. Officials recently allowed retailers to offer curbside pickup for goods but said stores must remain closed for now. Makarovich said the down time, the absence of walk-in traffic and questions about reopening prompted the move to cyberspace.
“We’ll still be here,” he said. “We’re just going to be online. We have a presence on Instagram, under @hampdenjunque, and we’ll offer both shipping and curbside pickup.”
The decision makes Hampden Junque the latest of several brick-and-mortar businesses in Hampden to close during the pandemic. Others include Sturgis Antiques & Collectables and Milk & Ice Vintage, which are also going online. Earlier this month, Ma Petite Shoe posted on Facebook saying it’s going online and holding a 40 percent off clearance sale for its shoes, socks and artisan chocolates.
“Due to the current COVID-19 situation, we have closed our retail location to the public,” one message reads. “We are still open online at mapetiteshoe.com and available over the phone Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.”
“Thank you for everything over the past 18 years,” another post says. “We loved every day seeing you, from the Mayor’s Parade to Bastille Day celebrations. But now it’s our time to say goodbye.”
The decision is “about being safe for us all,” shop owner Susannah Siger said in a follow-up comment. “We were such a ‘hands on’ type of experience.”
Located in a small but highly-visible space, Hampden Junque represents a significant loss for Hampden because it was instrumental in changing the way people think about the neighborhood and its main retail corridor, known as The Avenue.
Before the 1990s, W. 36th Street was lined mostly with utilitarian shops and businesses that served the immediate community and offered staples–a food market, bakery, clothing stores, banks, a thrift shop. Many of the merchants were reaching retirement age. Hampden Junque’s space formerly housed Benson’s Hardware Store.
Hampden Junque represented something different–a non-essential business filled with items mostly for fun and amusement, and that celebrated Baltimore. Along with Cafe Hon, its neighbor, it has been been credited with helping spark a retail renaissance for Hampden that brought visitors from other parts of the city and beyond.
The shop contained an eclectic and ever-changing mix of second-hand objects that someone once treasured–vintage posters, prints, old Connie Francis albums, Baltimoreana, National Bohemian items, John Waters items. The name itself was meant to imply that the inventory was somewhere between Junk and Antiques.
It was a well-curated place for browsing and impulse buying on a weekend, the kind of shop where customers don’t realize they need something until they see it. It offered a chance to find offbeat and idiosyncratic gifts without spending very much. The price range was between $3 and $80, and the owner was always willing to haggle. Makarovich knew his items, but he wasn’t snooty about it. He was also fun to talk to.
“He had the most fascinating store windows of anybody on The Avenue,” said Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum and a longtime customer. “Even though the store was small, square footage-wise, it packed such a punch. You could always find the perfect gift for someone you love in there or something to make you laugh.”
Hoffberger said she met Makarovich when she was a seventh grader taking a summer course in mime from him at Towson State University. She said she thinks Hampden has been successful ‘because no bureaucracy ever designated it an arts district” and it instead evolved organically, allowing merchants such as Makarovich to flourish. She calls his shop Divine Junque and she calls him an alchemist.
“It’s much more than a store,” she said. “He is such a creative force, one of the wildest and free-est souls I’ve ever met.”
The changing display windows–by Makarovich and Joe Witkowski for many years and then Monaco in recent years–not only showed what was inside the shop but enhanced the streetscape, said Denise Whiting, founder and owner of Cafe Hon, which originally was located across the street from Hampden Junque and later moved next to it.
“They were works of art,” Whiting said of the windows, which had a variety of themes. “They were always thoughtfully done, photographically perfect. Even if the shop was closed, you could spend 20 minutes looking at the window. And Pee-wee Herman was always in there somewhere.”
Long before selfies became a thing, people would stop and take photos of the big Pink Flamingo on the side of Cafe Hon and the big display window at Hampden Junque, she said.
“We were probably two of the most photographed places in the city. People would come in the restaurant and then go shopping, or go shopping and then come in the restaurant. There’s always been this nice symbiotic relationship.”
Benn Ray, co-owner of Atomic Books and president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, said Makarovich and his store are institutions.
“The window displays that they do are a benefit for the whole neighborhood,” he said. “People come just to see them. It’s an incalculable loss for the neighborhood, and it breaks my heart that we’re losing them.”
Makarovich said he’s proud to have cultivated a broad following, from hipsters in college to long-time Baltimoreans steeped in local lore.
“I say this jokingly, but we brought chic to The Avenue, even though we’re Junque,” he said. “We’re low end, and happy to be. It’s not like we’re ashamed that we’re so low and cheap and junky. We love that.”
The shop started out with three principals–Duane Schline, a haircutter who was on the original Buddy Deane Committee that provided the inspiration for “Hairspray”; Margo Goldman, whose father was a pianist for Kate Smith; and Makarovich, a former math, journalism and filmmaking teacher at Southern High School, now Digital Harbor High School, and the Boys School of St. Paul’s Parish, now part of The St. Paul’s Schools. Schline left in the late 1990s, and Goldman stayed until several months ago, leaving it to Makarovich to pay the rent and make all the decisions.
The shop was previously called Gustafson’s, a reference to Greta Garbo’s real name, Greta Gustafson. Makarovich and Schline, who were “Garbo maniacs,” created a street sign bearing her image and a saying: “I don’t vant to be alone. Come on in.” But when only a few people got it, they came up with a new name and included Hampden to emphasize where they were.
“The way I think of it is, we’re not quite junk with a K and we’re not quite fine antiques with a Q. We’re in between,” Makarovich explained. “That’s why it’s a combination of the two words, junk and antique. Some people pronounce it jun-kay. Or joonk. But it’s junque.”
Hampden Junque and Cafe Hon were joined by other businesses that would technically fall into Hogan’s “non-essential” category, but were actually very essential in building a new identity for Hampden as a place to find creative, one-of-a-kind merchants and merchandise. The list includes Hometown Girl; Ma Petite Shoe; In Watermelon Sugar; Atomic Books; Paradiso; Trohv; Wishbone Reserve and Baltimore in a Box, among others.
In recent years, Hampden’s retail corridor has become one of the city’s most popular shopping destinations, with businesses now spilling onto Falls Road, Chestnut Avenue and other streets that intersect with W. 36th Street.
The area emphasizes local-owned businesses, not chain stores. The shops have been supplemented by popular restaurants and bars, including Dylan’s Oyster Cellar; The Food Market; 13.5% Wine Bar; Paulie Gee’s; Golden West Cafe; Holy Frijoles and Blue Bird Cocktail Room & Pub.
The irony of the COVID pandemic is that the characteristics that set these one-of-a-kind retailers and restaurants apart– personal, hands-on service, attention to detail, lack of a pat formula, encouraging customers to linger, establishing a sense of place, promoting face-to-face interaction–are the very traits that get lost when health guidelines require social distancing and using a face mask.
Just about everything that distinguishes Hampden from other shopping districts and makes it a cohesive community seems to have fallen by the wayside or become endangered because of the pandemic, Ray said, adding that he also hates to see Ma Petite Shoe become online only.
Ma Petite Shoe’s owner, Siger, has been “a tremendous force in the neighborhood,” Ray said.
“She had a lot of creativity and a lot of energy. She did the Halloween costume contest and trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. If she goes, the neighborhood has lost that,” he said.
He later added: “But these are tremendous losses of the sorts of things that helped give our neighborhood character. And once they’re lost, I don’t see getting them back.”
There’s a human dimension that can disappear amid the lockdown and the guidelines about social distancing, Whiting agreed. “It’s easy to take these places for granted, but I think that’s what people are aching for now.”
Before the lockdown, “we were the place where people would go when they’re lonely or bored, after baptisms, after graduations,” she said of Cafe Hon and other businesses along The Avenue.
“I have customers who come in and instantly feel at home. They just want to be with other people. You miss seeing everybody and you miss the connections. We aren’t just retailers. We’re therapists. We’re entertainers. You can’t do that do that online, with curbside pickup.”
Makarovich received the first annual Alice Ann Finnerty Merchant of the Year award, back when Hampden was part of Baltimore’s Main Streets program.
Makarovich has also been active in the merchants association, recently organizing a session with artist Graham Coreil-Allen about how to make Hampden’s intersections safer and more pedestrian-friendly.
Makarovich said his shop had its best Christmas sales season ever in 2019, thanks to all the foot traffic. He said his goal was never to make a mint from the store but at least to pay its bills and have a good time along the way.
“This was for fun,” he said. “It wasn’t to make the most amount of money. We would like to cover our expenses and take some spending money, but nobody was getting rich on it.”
He wanted his customers to feel relaxed and have fun, too.
“One of the things that made it relaxing for people when they came in was that we never said, ‘This goes for this much on eBay’ or ‘The book value is…’ We didn’t do much looking things up.”
What he liked to hear most in the shop, he said, was laughter.
“The way I say it is, and I really mean this, everybody who came into that shop was in a good mood or got into a good mood. It was not condescending. It was a very loose, fun, down-to-earth thing, and never stuffy.”
Since the store was forced to close in March, Makarovich said, he’s missed seeing his customers and chatting with them. He also had difficulty envisioning how the shop would operate under rules that require social distancing, since it’s less than 300 square feet in size, the “aisles” are narrow and people are constantly stopping to pick up items and examine them.
Most exasperating, he said, was the uncertainly about exactly how to reopen and operate safely, since his shop has always been a place for patrons to linger and take their time, not rush in and rush out.
Makarovich said he’s optimistic that Hampden Junque will work as an online venture, based on the success other antiques merchants have had in using digital sales to expand their reach. He said Monaco is photographing the store’s vintage inventory and posting the images on Instagram, with instructions on how to make a purchase via PayPal and when curbside pickup will be available.
In the final display window, Makarovich and Monaco put Pee-wee Herman in the middle, beckoning patrons to follow him into cyberspace. A message in the window reads:
Hampden Junque has moved from 36th Street to Cyberspace.
Thanks to our many cool customers over these 25 years.
We’ll still be here for you, just not here.
You’ll now find us on Instagram @hampdenjunque
Browse our fabulous junque there, 24/7.
Makarovich said he sees it as a new chapter for Hampden Junque.
“We’re not really changing,” he insists. “We’ll still be around.”
Ray sees it as something more ominous.
Both Siger and Makarovich are “unique figures” for Hampden, he said.
“When they’re gone, part of the neighborhood goes with them.”
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