Mickey Fried, a son of the founders of Belle Hardware, now manages the store in Bolton Hill, which will be closing by the end of June after nearly 45 years in business. Photo by Ed Gunts.

One of Baltimore’s oldest mom-and-pop hardware stores is getting ready to sell its last thingamajig.

The owners of Belle Hardware, a lifesaver for homeowners and renters in Bolton Hill, Reservoir Hill and other midtown communities since Jimmy Carter was President, announced that the store will close by the end of June.

Their specialty is finding just the right item to repair or maintain an old house, whether it’s the glazing points used to fix a broken window or a toilet flapper or an elbow to connect pipes under the kitchen sink.

They stock parts that chains such as Lowe’s and Home Depot don’t carry but are needed by renovators who want to be “historically correct.” They’re invaluable to students wanting keys copied or supplies to finish class projects at the Maryland Institute College of Art. They’ve supported the Festival on the Hill and other neighborhood events. They greet customers by name and are unfailingly friendly and patient, even when clueless shoppers can’t articulate what they want.

“Due to many personal and professional changes over the last few years, we have decided to close Belle Hardware on or around June 11, 2022,” the owners said in a message on Facebook and Nextdoor. “This was a difficult decision to make but we know it is the right one for us.”

Belle Hardware “has served Baltimore for nearly 45 years and we have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this community,” the message continued. “To say that we are thankful for your support would be an understatement and the hardest part will be saying goodbye. We look forward to seeing all of you until we lock the doors for the final time. Serving you has been our pleasure.”

Janice and Joel Fried opened the store in 1978 in the shopping center on McMechen Street that now contains a Save A Lot grocery store and a Rite Aid. They named it after Janice’s mother, Isabelle. Originally on the east end of the 1950s-era shopping center, Belle was later moved to its current location at 240 McMechen St., closer to the grocery store.

Before it was a Save A Lot, the grocery store was an A&P. Over the years, the strip center contained Wallock’s Liquors; a laundromat; a shoe store and a carry out spot. They’re all now gone, leaving just Belle, Save A Lot and Rite Aid.

Best of Baltimore

Mickey Fried, a son of the founders, now manages the store, which has four other employees and is affiliated with the Do It Best network. His father passed away in 2016. His mother, now Janice McCulley after remarrying, has come in once a week all through the pandemic. Their longtime employee and gizmo guru, Maurice Jackson, retired in 2013 after 32 years with Belle.

Many know Belle as the neighborhood store that was sometimes featured, although not by name, in Rob Kasper’s popular Saturday’s Hero Baltimore Sun column, in which he would write about handyman-type projects around the house that he was working on and the advice he got at the local hardware store.

“He would say: ‘I went down to the hardware store and spoke to Maurice’ or ‘I spoke to Mickey,’ but that’s as far as he went,” Fried said. “If you lived in the neighborhood, you knew who he was talking about…It would make my grandmother very happy.”

According to The Bolton Hill Bulletin, one of the store’s traditions was an annual Sno-Ball Day on the Saturday before Father’s Day, in honor of Joel Fried and the coming of summer. In 2013, Baltimore City Paper inducted Belle Hardware into its Best of Baltimore Hall of Fame, after it was recognized so many previous years.

“The Hardware crown for Bestness has been duct-taped onto Belle’s Hardware-head at least three times, and as of now, we see no reason not to bolt it on permanently,” the editors said.

“Belle Hardware is where we go not just for the right kind of elastic caulk or a certain type of screw that we only need one of, or the Allen-wrench screw-thing that goes onto the thing that then screws into the thing on the hole-cutting saw blade we borrowed because we’re installing a deadbolt and have no %#@$!&{ idea what we’re doing. Belle Hardware is where we go for smart answers to dumb questions and a friendly but all-business staff that knows we love them but really don’t want to hang out all afternoon.”

Belle Hardware will close its store in Bolton Hill, its last remaining location of the four it once had, by the end of June. Photo by Ed Gunts.

The last of four

Bolton Hill’s Belle is the last of four hardware stores operated by the Frieds over the past five decades, along with ones in Rosedale, Cherry Hill and Roland Park. They sold or closed the other three by the late-1980s, so they could focus on the McMechen Street location.

Mickey Fried, now 52, jokes that Belle “took out” several larger hardware chains, including Hardware Fair and Hechinger’s. He said the closing in Bolton Hill was prompted by a confluence of factors, including an increase in online shopping, the effects of the COVID pandemic and real estate pressures. He said the store’s lease is due to expire at the end of June and the landlord, Save A Lot of St. Louis, proposed to increase the rent.

“There’s a bunch of reasons, and any one of them is not it but all of them together is,” he said. “It is a different financial market. It is a different retail market. Everyone would love to blame Home Depot or Lowe’s or Walmart and Amazon, but it’s all of them together. The city likes to talk about bringing in businesses, but it seems like they only support really large businesses.“

COVID “did not help either,” he said. “We severely cut hours, which does limit exposure. And with that, we lose market share. When you’re not here, you’re not here. With Amazon, they’re always there. It just becomes the new habit and people don’t go back.”

On top of that, he said, the proposed rent hike was “just one other piece of the puzzle.”

Fried said he tried to find a buyer who would keep the store open and had some interest, but nothing panned out. He said he’s aiming to close the store in time to turn the space back to the landlord by June 30 and, to that end, Belle is holding a 20 percent off Going Out of Business sale to help clear it out.

As with the recent closing of Ukazoo Books on Loch Raven Boulevard, the discounts at Belle will get progressively larger until the inventory is gone. Fried said he may auction off what doesn’t sell over the next few weeks. He said he doesn’t know what might take Belle’s place and he doesn’t know what he’ll do personally.

Good at puzzles

Fried was nine when his parents opened the store, and he started working there as a teenager. He said he sees customers who first came in as children and now have children of their own. Just inside the store’s entrance is a bulletin board that doubles as a well-read message center for the community, containing everything from baby photos to obituaries. Fried calls it “our Wall of Fame for the neighborhood.”

One of the changes over the years, Fried said, is that’s it’s harder to find certain items for old houses, such as the antique toilets that have a distinct top and a bottom. “So many things are not serviceable,” he said. “There are so many repair items that we don’t sell anymore because the original item has lived longer than all the parts out there for it, like the two-piece toilet.”

Part of the challenge, he said, has always been figuring out what a customer needs when they don’t know the name for it. He remembers one customer who came in looking for a “thingee” for his girlfriend’s “appliance,” and it “turned into a game of 120 questions.”

After a while, he said, “we finally whittled it down that he needed a key to bleed the radiator in her kitchen. The guesses went off-color for a little while until we figured out it was in the kitchen…I think we’ve become very good at those kinds of puzzles.”

‘The hardware version of Cheers’

Belle’s closing means one less independent hardware store in Baltimore. Others include Schneider’s in Roland Park, Falkenhan’s Hardware in Hampden and Zeskind’s Hardware & Millwork on South Payson Street, a fourth-generation business.

Fried points to several stores that aren’t too far from Belle, including Hardware Plus at 2211 Pennsylvania Ave.; Green’s Hardware at 1901 West Lafayette Ave., and Carey Hardware at 2102 West North Ave..

Since Fried posted news of Belle’s closing on social media last weekend, the store has had a steady stream of well-wishers, many of whom start by pleading: “Say it isn’t so.” Dozens of customers and former customers have written messages of gratitude and praise on social media.

“The things I have learned to fix in my house are because of your guidance!” said Sally Dalzell.

“The beating heart of the neighborhood for decades,” said Tony Watson.

“For 30 years, I’ve been able to ‘fix it’ by coming in to Belle,” said John Hurd Jr. “You’ve been the friendly ‘local hardware store, so I don’t have to go to the other place’ place.”

“Mickey and crew. You have been a centerpiece of the neighborhood a place where we could go to get good stuff and good advice,” Kasper said. “Your departure will leave a big hole in Bolton Hill.”

One of Fried’s favorite messages is from a customer who compared Belle Hardware to a TV show.

“Your store is like the hardware version of Cheers,” said former Park Avenue resident Donna Beth Joy Shapiro. “This is what I will miss most of all.”

The outpouring of support is “extremely nice” and “kind of overwhelming,” Fried said. “I knew this was going to be emotional, but I didn’t realize how quickly and how much.”

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.