Category Archives: Artifacts

“Top of the World, Ma!”

Laurel Plaza shopping center, at the intersection of Routes 197 and 198, has always had something unique to Laurel at any given time. Zayre (and later, Ames) was the anchoring department store on one end, and Grand Union (and later, Basics) was the grocery store on the other—a space that would later become the longtime home to Village Thrift Store. But, of course, Laurel Plaza was also home to the greatest sporting goods store of all time, Bob Windsor’s All Pro Sports—owned by former San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots star, Bob Windsor.

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© Lost Laurel collection

But Laurel Plaza was also where the Laurel Boys & Girls Club-sponsored traveling carnivals set up when I was a kid; and every year around this time, I think back to them fondly.

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Laurel Plaza carnival, May 1987. (Photo © Richard Friend)

Operated by Winchester Amusement Company, you didn’t have to be a certified safety inspector to tell that the rides weren’t exactly in optimal condition. Disney World, this most certainly wasn’t. And you could also count on some kind of trouble brewing at some point during the two-week run—usually a drunken scuffle or three after an argument over the (very-possibly-rigged) games of chance.

But the rides were true carnival classics: the Scrambler, the Trabant, and the Scat (among others) were there year after year. The crown jewel, however—the one that literally first caught your eye and immediately registered “carnival”—was the Ferris Wheel.

And Winchester Amusement Company had one of the biggest Ferris Wheels—a 50-footer. Anyone approaching Laurel Plaza simply couldn’t miss it.

Thirty years ago this week, (on May 14th, 1987, to be exact) I got to experience that 50-foot Ferris Wheel from a very unique perspective:

I got stuck at the top, and had to climb down via the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department’s 100-foot ladder truck.

I literally remember it like it was yesterday, but my memory is surely aided by these photos that I took the day after the fateful ride.

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The infamous Ferris Wheel at Laurel Plaza, the day after the incident. (Photo © Richard Friend)

I’ve never been a particular fan of Ferris Wheels, mind you; I’m more of a roller coaster guy. But I’d had it in my mind to try out every ride the carnival had to offer. Ferris Wheels always struck me as incredibly boring; but as luck would have it, this one quickly turned into what was arguably the most exciting ride in the history of the Laurel carnival.

It was around 8PM that night when I boarded the Ferris Wheel—the ride only about three quarters full with nine people, total. It made exactly one full rotation, and as I passed the motor at the base of the ride, I flinched as a large cable literally snapped off the drive wheel system. Seconds later, as my car ascended to the top, the entire Ferris Wheel shimmied side to side briefly—that’s when everyone realized that something had gone wrong. For a split second, I thought it was going to collapse. That, or we were literally going to start rolling down Route 198.

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The broken cable the day after the incident. Photo © Richard Friend

Instead, we heard what sounded like a generator cutting off, and the wheel simply ground to a stop—with my car literally stuck at the very top.

I remember seeing the Ferris Wheel operator frantically trying to figure out what to do; and when his best option was evidently to try to manually rotate the giant wheel—with his bare hands—I knew this was serious.

With curious onlookers beginning to congregate, carnival employees shouted up to us that they would have us down safely soon; but at least an hour went by before we finally saw salvation…in the form of fire trucks.

A pair of firefighters climbed the 100-foot ladder to my car, and spent a few moments securing the car to their ladder. I was told to hold onto the back of the car I was sitting in, because the second I started moving, it would swing forward. Sure enough, I found myself looking straight down at the asphalt parking lot for a few unnerving seconds. But I was safely harnessed to the firefighter, who assured me that if I fell, he would fall, too—and that he wasn’t planning to fall.

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The safety bar on Car #9, still open the day after I’d climbed out from the top of the Ferris Wheel. (Photo © Richard Friend)

He instructed me to carefully step out of the car, and to throw my legs over the top of the Ferris Wheel, one at a time. Literally, over the top of the Ferris Wheel, and onto the ladder. I did that, and we slowly descended together. As we did, I confided to him, “this is a lot more fun than the Ferris Wheel.”

I’d just gotten safely to the ground when a man whom I assume was the owner/manager of the carnival approached me. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he looked exactly like the guy from “The Blues Brothers” who owned Bob’s Country Bunker.

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Bob, owner of Bob’s Country Bunker. (“The Blues Brothers,” 1980).

He was smiling jovially as he handed me a small cup of Pepsi. “Are ‘ya thirsty? Here, have a soda!” And then he handed me the real reward for my experience: a pair of complimentary ticket books. They included 12 tickets for free rides. I still have the covers in my collection:

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I went straight home after that, and found my mom furious that I was over an hour and a half late. Not only that, she didn’t believe my story of being stuck at the top of the Ferris Wheel—even when I showed her the ticket books I’d received. It actually wasn’t until the following Thursday, when the Laurel Leader reported the incident, that she realized I’d been telling the truth!

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To my knowledge, no charges or lawsuits were ever filed, as no one was injured. I went back to the carnival in the days afterward and used my free tickets—even riding the Ferris Wheel again once it was operational. Although, that was the last Ferris Wheel ride I’ve ever taken.

I’ve tried to find out whatever became of the Winchester Amusement Company, which (not surprisingly) seems to be out of business. I’d heard that the Laurel Boys & Girls Club, concerned with their quality control, eventually replaced them with another carnival operator in the 1990s. And in 1998, there was an incident in Hagerstown where a teenager was seriously injured after being ejected from one of the rides operated by Winchester Amusement. I doubt there were any free ticket books and Pepsis after that one, and it may very well have spelled the end for the longtime carnies.

Nevertheless, I’ll always have the memory of climbing down from the top of that Ferris Wheel at the carnival in Laurel Plaza—which may as well have been the top of the world. It’s just hard to believe that it’s been 30 years. Driving past the shopping center today, the parking lot is still teeming with activity; but nothing like the night of May 14, 1987.

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Laurel Theatre / Petrucci’s: Demolition Pending

My next episode of Lost Laurel will focus on the long history of the derelict building at 312 Main Street, which originally housed the Laurel Theatre, and was the longtime home to Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre before a string of increasingly unsuccessful comedy clubs led to its demise. Here’s a preview:

Unfortunately, the City’s efforts to find a developer willing and able to salvage the critically-deteriorated building weren’t successful, and having recently had the opportunity to tour it myself, I completely see why.

A big thanks to SORTO Contracting, LLC (particularly Francisco Sorto, David Muir, Blaine Sutton, Harry Garlitz and Patrick Fink) for extending the invitation to see and document the building’s final days, and for sharing some truly fantastic finds that I’ll be including in the full episode. In addition to the building’s history, you’ll see for yourself just how far gone the structure actually was. (Yes, those were angry pigeons living inside… and I’m deathly afraid of birds.)

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The SORTO team was also kind enough to carefully remove and save the “Theatre” lettering from the façade for me—these are individually-cut wooden letters that are the only remaining vestiges of the Petrucci’s era (they originally spelled out the full name, “Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre” and matched the adjacent Pal Jack’s Pizza font.laurel-theatre-preview-pic5laurel-theatre-preview-pic6laurel-theatre-preview-pic7

The letters are badly deteriorated, and frankly, I’m amazed that they came down intact. I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I’m going to restore them.laurel-theatre-preview-pic8laurel-theatre-preview-pic9laurel-theatre-preview-pic10

Blaine Sutton and Patrick Fink of SORTO have also been sharing some of the unexpected treasures that only tend to resurface when walls start coming down. And in a movie theater that dates to 1929, that means some very old candy boxes and soda bottles, for starters! Here’s just a glimpse of what they’ve found:

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Photo courtesy of Blaine Sutton

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Photo courtesy of Patrick Fink

 

Patrick tells me that the pristine Pepsi bottle pre-dates 1951, at which point Pepsi stopped using the double-dot in their logo. It had been stuck in the plaster mortar in the ceiling below the balcony for at least 65 years.

I’ll have plenty more photos to share in the next blog update when the full video is ready. Those who don’t get Laurel TV will still be able to see the episode right here.

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Surprise Closing: Silver Diner

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Photo: Chris B. Daniel

Yesterday evening, I got a text from Rodney Pressley—one of my oldest friends from Laurel. He’d just gotten a most unexpected email from Silver Diner. It wasn’t a promotional coupon, or an announcement about an upcoming event:

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Courtesy of Rodney Pressley

They weren’t just announcing that the popular restaurant at 14550 Washington Boulevard was closing—they had already closed, effective immediately.

Rodney sent me the above screenshot, which I posted on the Lost Laurel Facebook page essentially as breaking news, because this information seemed to have come out of nowhere.

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It quickly became one of Lost Laurel’s most engaging posts—ever—with over 300 shares and over 44,000 people reached. (The page has even had more than 150 new likes in the past 24 hours). Clearly, the unexpected departure of the Silver Diner caught all of us off guard, even those who weren’t regular patrons.

A number of people commented that they’d actually just eaten at the restaurant the day before, and there had been absolutely no clue that they had planned to close. Silver Diner’s website (which had already erased the Laurel location from its website at the time of the email) eventually updated its FAQ page with a special notice about the Laurel restaurant’s closing. They also included a detailed PDF.

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In short, it seems that the restaurant had a 25-year lease on the property, which had just ended. The landowner(s) wanted considerably more money to renew the lease than Silver Diner was willing to pay.

One would think that there would have been some sort of communication with the employees and the community at large before the decision to close was made, though. Had there been, I’m guessing there would have been strong support for Silver Diner to remain open. After all, the restaurant seemed to have a full parking lot at all hours of the day and night—they weren’t hurting for business.

And from a historical perspective, (albeit recent history) this is actually a pretty big deal. The Silver Diner opened in late 1990, and was only the second restaurant in the chain’s history (behind Rockville). It even had an early review in the Washington Post.

Twenty-five years. Think about that for a second. In an age when we’ve sadly come to expect businesses to change every couple of years, this one ended up staying for a quarter of a century. While it honestly didn’t seem like it, the novelty of this polished chrome and neon facsimile of a classic diner had steadily become a classic itself. At the very least, it had become a fixture in the shadow of Laurel Lakes.

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Photos: Bonnie Oskvarek

With the news of its closing, rumors and misinformation quickly began flying, as is often the case with social media. Some folks were confusing the Silver Diner with its elder counterpart—the legendary Tastee Diner at 118 Washington Boulevard—which is still very much open for business, and now in its 65th year. Others mistakenly thought the entire Silver Diner chain was going out of business, blaming its revamped menu, among other things.

Others were speculating that the restaurant had closed due to a fire—a fate all-too familiar for other longtime Laurel restaurants. (See also, “Bay ‘n Surf,” “Delaney’s Irish Pub,” and “Tag’s”…)

In fact, there had actually been a minor fire at the Silver Diner on closing day—but it had nothing to do with the chain’s decision to close the Laurel restaurant.

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Courtesy of Megan Wheatley Shurman

So, Laurel’s Silver Diner has closed its doors. There was no forewarning, and no chance for customers to stop in one last time to reminisce. And 25 years’ worth of memories is significant. I’ve heard from several people who had gone to the restaurant on their first dates; and one Lost Laurel reader commented that she’d met her future husband there—he’d been her waiter.

That being said, I suppose there’s never been a more perfect time to share these items from my collection. Frankly, I didn’t really expect to share them; I assumed, like everyone else, that the Silver Diner wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. These flyers, menus, and coffee cup date between 1990–92—the restaurant’s earliest days:

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This one’s a two-fer: local oldies radio station XTRA104 didn’t last very long into the 1990s.

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Note the two locations: it was just Rockville and Laurel at the time.

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For what it’s worth, Silver Diner’s website mentions that they are “looking at multiple opportunities in the Laurel and Columbia areas and (they) hope to return to the Laurel area soon.”

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Brick by Brick

I still occasionally get comments from new Lost Laurel Facebook readers, asking why certain businesses don’t seem to be featured. One that comes up quite often: “What about Dottie’s Trophies?” And I have to explain that A) the concept of Lost Laurel is that these are all places that are no longer in business. And B) Dottie’s Trophies—sometimes to the surprise of many—is indeed still open for business. Since 1968, in fact, they’ve been continuously producing countless trophies and awards for sports teams and corporations in the Laurel area and beyond.

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It also dawned on me recently that I’d never actually been to Dottie’s Trophies in all these years. I’ve driven by it at least 1,232,000 times; and I’ve had at least a couple bowling trophies as a kid with Dottie’s name on the bottom. I decided to remedy that, and came up with what I think was a unique way to utilize their craft.

Let me backtrack for a moment.

A little over a year ago, I was giving a presentation for the Laurel Historical Society when I met Mike McLaughlin—and he gave me a wonderful surprise gift. A pair of them, actually—pieces of concrete from the recently demolished ruins of two of my favorite Lost Laurel sites: the Tastee-Freez and the Laurel Centre Mall. Mike had taken and shared some wonderful photos of the demolition process of both, and managed to salvage a few pieces of the buildings—literally—before they were gone for good.

The amazing thing about the Tastee-Freez coming down was the reemergence of the red and white tiles underneath the exterior facade. The tiles were from the 1960s, when the building was originally Laurel’s first McDonald’s.

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The white brick from the Mall still had those tiny flecks of crystal that would catch the sunlight on the Hecht’s/Macy’s side. It’s funny how even a single brick can still trigger an image of the Mall as a whole.

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I thought of these bricks recently when it became apparent that demolition work on the Stanley Memorial Library is finally imminent. (As of this post, the building is still standing; but it’s surrounded by chain link fencing and work is likely to begin any day now.) My very first job was as a clerical aide at that library, and I ended up working there all throughout high school and college. It was and will always be a special place for me. When the building comes down, I’d like to get a few bricks for myself and some former colleagues.

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It turns out I didn’t have to wait for the library to fall down to get my brick, at least. On a recent stop to photograph it, Pete Lewnes noticed one just sitting there loose near the missing cornerstone, (which I’m guessing either Prince George’s County Memorial Library System or the Laurel Museum had removed for posterity) and grabbed it for me.

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So, getting back to Dottie’s Trophies…

Because these old bricks and shards of masonry mean something to me—and hopefully to anyone with fond memories of the buildings they once comprised—I decided to have small, engraved name plates attached to them. And who better to do that than Dottie’s Trophies?

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It adds a sort of reverence even I wasn’t quite expecting. It also makes me wish I had a brick from all of the legendary places that have vanished from the Laurel landscape over the years. I could put them all together to form an actual Lost Laurel wall… if not an actual Lost Laurel Museum.

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The Year of Tastee-Freez

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The Nickell family celebrating 25 years of Tastee-Freez ownership in 1999. (Laurel Leader photo by Jason Lee, 8/5/99)

It was 1974 when James Nickell took over the Tastee-Freez from its original owners, Mr. & Mrs. James DeLorenzo—who’d opened the franchise in what had previously been Laurel’s first McDonald’s.

So, it’s fitting that the first and only Tastee-Freez/Big T calendar I’ve come across would be from that very year. Here it is, scanned in its entirety.

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Merry Christmas Past

I’m guessing that when this Laurel family received this Christmas card in 1935, they never dreamed it would find its way onto the internet 79 years later. Or that there’d be something called “an internet”.

Wishing you and yours the merriest of Christmases!

~ Richard

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The Winning Picture!

A while back, I thought it would be fun to run a little contest, and asked readers who’d bought the Lost Laurel book to take a photo (or modify one in Photoshop, etc.) that creatively incorporated the book. The idea actually came from a photo that Facebook fan Mike Flester posted shortly after receiving his copy in the mail. He wrote:

The awesome #LostLaurelBook has arrived and found it’s place on Main Street. The book stirred up lots of nice memories of things and recollections of things I remember the older generations talking about. Thanks Richard!

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While I want to thank everyone who took the time to send in a photo, I think it’s safe to say that this one nailed it from the start. It also reminded me that I still have to find some of these vintage Cat’s Meow® Laurel landmarks for my own collection! I’d never even seen the ones for Cook’s, Gavriles’, Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre, and the Laurel Meat Market before, so if anyone has extras they’d like to sell, kindly let me know!

Mike, I did find this very small one, which would look great front and center in your photo:

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For his entry, Mike wins another signed copy of Lost Laurel—just in time for Christmas. It’s on its way!

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Lost Laurel TV: Laurel Shopping Center, Part 1

The latest episode of Lost Laurel on Laurel TV has aired, and is available on their YouTube channel. They’ve given me an HD version to post for my own archive, which is great, since the video includes some fantastic vintage photos!

This is the first of a two-part series on the history of Laurel Shopping Center, which focuses on the 1956 grand opening—including an itinerary of the “Fifteen Fabulous Days” celebration, the incredible promotions created by owners Melvin & Wolford Berman and Arthur Robinson, and an interview with Bart Scardina, Jr., whose father opened Bart’s Barber Shop as one of the original tenants. Of those original businesses, only Bart’s and Giant Food remain open today.

Part 2 will cover the 1966 expansion of the shopping center, the 1971 addition of Georgetown Alley, and the 1979 arrival of Laurel Centre Mall. We’ll also look at Laurel Shopping Center’s day of infamy—the 1972 assassination attempt of Governor George Wallace. We’ll be filming that in the coming weeks.

As always, a special thanks to Laurel Leader “History Matters” columnist Kevin Leonard for his segment, and to Denny Berman and Bart Scardina, Jr. for taking the time to share their memories.

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Laurel Shopping Center… The Theme Song?

Just so you know, you’ll be hearing me talk about “The Berman Collection” quite a bit in the coming months.

The Berman Collection is a treasure trove of photographs, newspaper clippings, and other artifacts from the family of Laurel Shopping Center founders Melvin and Wolford Berman.

While researching the early days of Laurel Shopping Center for a recent 3-part Laurel Leader column, historian Kevin Leonard met with Melvin’s son, Dennis Berman—now General Partner of all Berman Enterprises entities.

Denny proved not only to be a wonderful source of information, but keenly interested in helping us document the history of the groundbreaking shopping center his family built in 1956, which quite literally put Laurel on the map—at least in the eyes of retailers, shoppers, and those not solely interested in horse racing (which, to be fair, put Laurel on the map several decades earlier).

With incredible generosity, Denny Berman decided to donate a massive number of materials to the Laurel Historical Society, including a large scrapbook specifically documenting every phase of the “Fifteen Fabulous Days” campaign that comprised the November 1956 grand opening of Laurel Shopping Center. If you’re interested in such history as I am, trust me when I tell you that it’s the Holy Grail.

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I’ve already shared a few photos on the Lost Laurel Facebook page, but that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. Kevin and I have been slowly but surely photographing and scanning every inch of the collection before it goes into the Laurel Museum—we’re working on a book that will showcase the material and the Berman family’s contribution to Laurel.

That being said, one of the most intriguing pieces in the collection is this empty record sleeve:

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What’s interesting about it? According to a description card, the sleeve originally held a recording (no known copies exist) of a Laurel Shopping Center theme song—which played on speakers throughout the center, on TV and radio commercials… even from a helicopter.

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Now, I told you Denny Berman is a wonderful source of information. He’s also a great sport. I had the pleasure of meeting him this week with Kevin, and when I brought up the theme song topic, he not only remembered the lyrics—he agreed to sing it for me.

This will be part of the next episode of the Lost Laurel TV show, which is actually a 2-part series on the history of Laurel Shopping Center. It features many of the photos from The Berman Collection, and Denny himself plans to join us on location for the second part, which I’m really looking forward to filming with Laurel TV in early December.

With the new Towne Centre at Laurel planning its official grand opening this Saturday (despite having been open for quite some time already) on the site of the former Laurel Centre Mall, it’s the perfect time to take a closer look at the history of the mall that started it all.

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Kroop’s Boots Needs Your Help

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Not every business from Laurel’s past has disappeared. In fact, there are a precious few that still maintain their original charm and qualities—none more so than A.M. Kroop and Sons, whose business on C Street is like a veritable time machine.

The legendary shoemakers specialize in custom boots, made with the same meticulous 125-step process the family has used for over a century. They’ve long been a favorite among jockeys and horse trainers around the world. In fact, famed jockey George Woolf was wearing Kroop’s boots when he rode Seabiscuit to victory at Pimlico in 1938. And when Universal Pictures’ Seabiscuit was made in 2003, the filmmakers hired them for authenticity. The shop also appears in several of author Dick Francis‘ mystery novels.

It’s also the only place where you can see just how tiny Willie Shoemaker‘s (the aptly named jockey for this particular story) feet were. This was the actual mold Kroop’s used in creating his footwear.

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I bought my first pair of Kroop’s boots this weekend, and to say that they’re amazing is an understatement. (As would saying that they’re bigger than Willie Shoemaker’s).

If, like me, you’ve never had shoes custom made to fit your feet, you’re in for a wonderful surprise. But it’s not just the best pair of shoes you’ll ever own—it’s the experience of having them made by a genuine master craftswoman. That’s Randy Kroop.

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It takes several weeks for Randy to create your shoes from scratch, old-world style. That’s something that many people may not have the patience for, unless they’ve seen first-hand just how these unique shoes are made. If you haven’t watched the video above, now is the perfect time to check it out. It’s a fantastic documentary of the business by Kyle Anderson, Adam DeLuca, and Caz Rubacky, and really captures the essence of the shop in less than 10 minutes.

You already know that Randy and her very small, specialized staff make each shoe by hand. But what you probably didn’t know is that they still utilize original equipment from the 1930s. The shop is practically an industrial museum in terms of the machines. And that has raised a potentially critical challenge—finding someone capable of repairing and maintaining these antique machines is almost becoming an impossibility.

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Making shoes the old fashioned way is literally a dying art form, as the people who built these wonderful machines have long since passed on. Occasionally, Randy can find someone who’s able to “make adjustments” to keep the proverbial wheels turning, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult. And replacing them with more modern equipment would be too expensive; not to mention, contrary to everything Kroop’s stands for.

There was some concern that Kroop’s might close when the new C Street Flats development began construction just behind them. But the bigger threat actually seems to be the keeping the machinery itself running smoothly.

Perhaps you or someone you know has experience repairing vintage machines. Not necessarily these specific  appliances, but maybe you’re just one of those people who can fix anything—the kind who hasn’t had to replace their vacuum cleaner since 1955, and who keeps historic cars looking showroom sweet. Maybe you’d be able to take a look at the machines and let Randy know if there’s something you can do or someone you can recommend. To date, the closest contact she’s found is located in Pittsburgh—surely we can find someone closer.

If so, please get in touch with Randy Kroop and see if you might be able to help. Anything we can do to preserve this Laurel institution will be worthwhile.

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For more information:

A.M. Kroop and Sons, Inc.
26 C Street
Laurel, MD 20707

(301) 725-1535

kroopboots.com

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