Category Archives: Stores

1986: The 99¢ Theater

Summer being the time of blockbuster movies, here’s a true Lost Laurel blockbuster: footage from 1986 leading up to the opening of the 99¢ theater at Town Center! Courtesy of the amazing Jeff Krulik and Paul Sanchez, this clip captures the Rt. 197 & Contee Road shopping center as it was in the mid-80s—including Peoples Drug, Tropical Fish City, DiGennaro’s, Church’s Fried Chicken, and more.

Much more to come—including footage from the grand opening itself (complete with performances by the legendary Sammy Ross, on loan from Delaney’s Irish Pub!) Thanks again, Jeff!!

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“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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Leo Emery, 1930–2016

Matt, Joyce, and Leo Emery. 2012. Photo by Richard Friend

Very sad news to report—Mr. Leo Emery, longtime owner of the wonderful Laurel Art Center on Main Street, passed away Wednesday, September 28th after a long illness. He was 86. Services are scheduled at Donaldson Funeral Home with visitation on Sunday, October 2nd from 2:00 PM until 4:00 PM. Funeral service is scheduled on Monday, October 3rd at 1:00 PM. Interment will follow at Ivy Hill Cemetery. Undoubtedly, many in Laurel will want to pay their respects to this kind and generous man who truly put the “art” in Laurel’s Arts District.

(Photo: Richard Friend, 2012)
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A Murder Mystery Set in (Lost) Laurel

Over the years, I’ve read a few novels that actually mention Laurel, Maryland at some point in the story; and it’s always an unexpected pleasure to see my hometown appear within the pages—pages from the likes of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, Tom Clancy’s The Cardinal of the Kremlin, and Dick Francis’ Rat Race.

But it never occurred to me that I might someday read a novel set completely in Laurel—particularly the Laurel of the mid-1980s, which will always be one of my most favorite times. That’s exactly what I got in Teddy Durgin‘s new book, The Totally Gnarly, Way Bogus Murder of Muffy McGregor.

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Photos courtesy of Teddy Durgin

Teddy’s story almost instantly transports you back to Laurel Centre Mall in 1986. That being the Laurel Centre Mall I still recall fondly walking to and from open lunch during my freshman year at Laurel High that very same year.

Without revealing any spoilers, the darkly-humorous plot centers around high school friends (and mall summer employees) Sam, Chip, and Buddy, who inadvertently find themselves mixed up in the murder investigation of their far more popular classmate—cheerleader Muffy McGregor.

There are a number of twists and turns, most occurring right there at the mall and Laurel Shopping Center; and it’s quite a trip to read along in a setting which is so personally familiar.

Many times, I found myself imagining that I was back in 1986; that this was a novel I’d bought at Crown Books, then walked next door through the elevated connector to JC Penney and the mall, and was sitting in the Circle Eatery—reading while enjoying a slice of pizza from Italian Delight and a tasty beverage from Orange Julius.

As I’ve already shared with Teddy, photos from that era will have extra meaning to me now that I’ve read his book. Photos like this one from John Floyd, which shows the Harmony Hut in late 1981. In the story, this is where Chip works.

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Photo: John Floyd II

The Totally Gnarly, Way Bogus Murder of Muffy McGregor is a fun read made all the more special by its memorable setting. Hopefully, Teddy has plans to bring these enjoyable characters back for additional adventures in vintage Laurel!

For more on Teddy Durgin and his first novel, check out the Laurel Leader‘s recent article. And be sure to support this hometown author by picking up the book on Amazon.com!

 

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Main Street Time Machine

The next time you’re traveling along Main Street, (preferably walking, rather than driving) do yourself a favor and stop in front of Minuteman Press at 335 Main Street. Even if you don’t have anything to be printed, just do some proverbial window shopping—you’ll be in for a historical treat.

A few months ago, owner Bob Mignon expanded his longtime corner business. You might’ve noticed the “Future Home of Minuteman Press” banner… ironically just steps away from what was then the current home.

(Photo: John Mewshaw)

(Photo: John Mewshaw)

Bob didn’t simply move into the larger space next door, he consolidated the building—much as a distant tenant from the early 1920s did, when it was the Ellis Market grocery store.

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Laurel News Leader ad, 1948

Laurel News Leader ad, 1948

(Laurel News Leader ad, 1953)

(Laurel News Leader ad, 1953)

(Laurel News Leader ad, 1954)

(Laurel News Leader ad, 1954)

Being a Laurel history buff himself, (and a tremendous supporter of the Laurel Historical Society) Bob had a unique vision for decorating the expanded storefront windows. He was interested in showcasing historic photos of the town, and worked with Beltsville’s Jay Williams Design Company to create a display that takes the viewer back nearly a century.

(Photo courtesy Greater Beltsville Business Association)

(Photo courtesy Greater Beltsville Business Association)

Included are larger than life images of the Harrison-Beard Building at Montgomery and 9th Streets, Laurel’s train station, (very much relevant, given the current controversy over a new Howard County stop threatening to take its place) St. Philip’s Church, and the electric trolley station at 6th & Main Streets (site of the current Oliver’s Old Towne Tavern—quite the historic little building in its own right.)

But the centerpiece of the design—literally—are the photos and narrative covering the door to the 337 entrance.

Last August, while Bob and Jay were still planning the display, an elderly woman and her family happened to be across the street from Minuteman Press, seemingly admiring the building. Bob went outside to say hello, and found himself meeting 90-year-old Shirley Ellis Siegel, who was visiting with her sons to reminisce about the house she grew up in during the 1920s.

This serendipitous meeting resulted in the photos now featured on the door, which the Ellis family happily shared. The large image showing the market’s interior is used perfectly—it’s as though you’re looking through the door into the building’s past.

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Kudos to Bob Mignon, Jay Williams, and the Ellis family for creating a fantastic visual tribute. It’s a wonderful new way to share the city’s history right there on its most historic street.

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Deerfield Run + Laurel Centre Mall, early 1980s

Recently, one of my dearest friends from elementary school, Sherry (Green) Wetherill, surprised me with a wonderful package in the mail. Inside was a treasure trove of photos dating from 1982–84—our final years as students at Deerfield Run Elementary.

The photos include some shots from a 1982 square-dancing performance the school put on at the center court of Laurel Centre Mall, as well as our 1984 class “graduation” ceremony. Fortunately, I was spared from having to do the square-dancing thing in public. Sherry and some of our classmates made the best of it, however; and thanks to her mom, we’re now seeing some rare color photos of the original center court—which was located just above the rotating carousel shops.

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Sherry wisely opted for a visit to Time-Out Family Amusement Center after the performance. This is only the second photo I’ve ever seen taken inside the popular Laurel arcade, as well as a bonus shot of Teeser’s Palace directly next door—where many an airbrushed t-shirt was sold over the years.

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Note also the original brown marble floor tiles and wooden storefront accents. These would all be replaced in the early 1990s when mall management deemed it “too 70s-looking”.

Other photos in Sherry’s collection date to June 1984, when our 6th grade class graduated from Deerfield Run. The ceremony took place in the school’s cafeteria/auditorium—which (and I’m not kidding) they literally named the “Cafetorium”. I still remember the sign above the double doors.

The program opened with Scott Miller carrying the flag on stage, and that’s me in the blue suit with Justine Kim leading the Pledge of Allegiance.

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Keep in mind, these aren’t necessarily in their proper order; but there’s one I should get out of the way right up front. Remember when I said that I was fortunate to have avoided the whole square-dancing thing at the mall? In hindsight, that probably would’ve been the wiser choice. Yes, that’s me in the center (with the blue striped Nikes)… breakdancing. At least I had the presence of mind to strike a pose that hid my face.

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But in all seriousness, these photos are remarkable in that they provide an almost tangible sense of Deerfield Run at that time. It’s hard to believe this was more than 30 years ago; and the images transport you back there immediately. The earthy colors of the smooth cement walls… the flecks in the tile floors… the texture of the glossy wooden stage.

Without further ado, here are the rest of the photos along with a few general comments.

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The school band gets ready to assemble along the far wall to the left of the stage, as people find their seats. Anyone who ever attended Deerfield Run (or any Prince George’s County Public School in the 1980s, probably) undoubtedly remembers those molded plastic multicolored chairs:

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A couple of these images are bittersweet, because they feature some folks who are sadly no longer here. In this first one, Sherry and Julie Douglass pose for a photo on stage before or after the program, while Lafayette McCray debates photobombing. Lafayette was funny and was one of the most gifted young athletes I’ve seen on any level. Unfortunately, he was murdered shortly after high school in a Largo parking lot.

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Here’s a pair of pics with our beloved 5th & 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Hortense Adams (far left). I can just hear her now, asking for a second photo to be taken without her glasses… She’d earned them as a child, avidly reading books in the dark after bedtime. Sadly, Mrs. Adams passed away in August 2013 after a battle with cancer. She was 67.

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I can’t recall why we had Prince George’s County Police officers on hand, but they presented some sort of awards to select students. One of them was the incredibly smart Stan Angus, who’s sitting in the chair on stage in this first photo. Stan lived on Irving Street and rode my school bus.

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Principal Michael J. Lapriola also distributed certificates to the highest achievers in our group, among them Jennifer Jacobs, (partially hidden behind Mr. Lap) Tanika Jolly, Sherry, Wayne Bailey, Justine Kim, and Mona Frastaci. I’m sure Stan Angus got one, too; but I’m not sure what the deal is with him still sitting in that chair on stage…

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The school’s band performed on the far end of the cafetorium, just in front of the “in” and “out” doors where hot lunches were served. I don’t recall the band teacher’s name, (and I regret not learning to play an instrument back then) but I recognize a few faces. Directly to his right is Tanika, Melissa Woody, Scott Miller, and Sherry waiting for her violin solo:

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There were a few solo performances, including Sherry on violin. I see Ms. Littleford, our music teacher, standing near the doorway. Stan, meanwhile, is still sitting on stage…

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This was an all-girls’ dance number, apparently. I only recognize Julie Douglass, who grew up in my Steward Manor neighborhood:

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This, I’m guessing, was a chorus performance. Jason Brockenberry, with the white shirt & black tie in the back row, was one of my best friends at the school—and the first to introduce me to the fantastic Choose Your Own Adventure books. (House of Danger, the first one I ever read, is still my favorite.) But I digress.

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Jennifer Jacobs and Wayne Bailey, both of whom were exceptional students, spoke at the podium:

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Okay, seeing Stan and Mona both sitting on the stage makes a bit more sense to me now. I’m pretty sure they were the Master and Mistress of Ceremonies, respectively. (I was seriously starting to worry that Stan might still be inexplicably sitting up on that stage, 31 years after the program ended…)

These next two photos are a bit dark, and appear to be from a different assembly (note the “Follow Your Dream” theme in the background. Our graduation theme was “Up, Up, and Away to New Horizons.”) I’m not entirely sure, but the blonde kid in the white t-shirt just below the word “YOUR” might be me:

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Likewise, Sherry’s wearing a different outfit here—and that blue wall looks like the Deerfield gym rather than the cafetorium:

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Speaking of different outfits… (and gym) she included this photo from the following year—when we all had to wear these blue & gold gym uniforms at Eisenhower Middle School. Or, as her Post-It Note puts it, the “Dreaded EMS gym attire.”

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By the way, Sherry’s handwriting is exactly the same as it was in elementary school, when she constantly won penmanship awards.

Last but certainly not least, this was the rising 6th grade class—who were apparently forced to sing a “farewell” song for us. I recognize James McNeirney on the far left and Mike McNeal on the far right; and Chad Caffas in the back row near the center. And of course, Kevin Buter in the red shirt.

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I can remember drinking chocolate milk out of those little paper containers at lunch with Kevin and several of the kids in these photos in this very room, (sorry—”cafetorium”) and I have to say, it warms my heart to know that I’m still in touch with so many of them today. In fact, I’m looking forward to having a few drinks with some of them next weekend. Hmm… Maybe I’ll bring some of those little chocolate milk containers for old times’ sake.

My thanks again to Sherry for sharing these wonderful photos, and for allowing me to post them here. Hopefully some of our other classmates will recognize themselves, and experience the same amazing flashbacks.

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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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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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Driving Through Laurel, 1973

Finding photos of vintage Laurel is tough enough, so you can imagine how special it is to find actual film footage. This wonderful clip was shared by Gary M. Smith, and it provides us with an all-too-brief glimpse of a decent portion of Laurel—captured on 8mm film from the passenger seat of a car driven by Milton J. Smith, Sr. in 1973.

It’s a classic 3-minute reel with some interruptions and jumpiness, but there are plenty of unmistakable landmarks throughout the drive. Now that I have the privilege of being your tour guide, here are a few sites to watch for:

  • We start out in North Laurel at the Beech Crest Estates Mobile Home park—the sign for which can be seen at 0:07. Several of the trailers and residents can be seen over the next 30 seconds.
  • At the 0:35 mark, we’re driving driving southbound on Washington Boulevard (Rt. 1), and we pass the California Inn, just north of Whiskey Bottom Rd.
  • Continuing southbound on Rt. 1, we see Sam & Elsie’s Bar at the 0:46 mark.
  • A billboard advertising the nearby Valencia Apartments appears at 0:53.
  • At 0:57, we cross the oft-flooded bridge over the Patuxent and see the Homoco gas station—the remnants of which were only recently torn down on the Fred Frederick automotive property.
  • At 1:02 (just after a bus—probably a Trailways—unfortunately blocks our view of Main Street) we pass White’s Texaco Station, and get just the faintest glimpse of the Little Tavern beside it.
  • The film skips forward a bit at 1:08, where we find ourselves at the intersection of Rt. 1 and Montgomery Street, and Floyd Lilly’s Laurel Amoco Super Service Station, which won a Chamber of Commerce award “for excellence in design, planning, and beautification”. (Imagine a gas station doing that…)
  • I’m not entirely sure, but at 1:16, we seem to be heading west on Talbott Avenue/Rt. 198 beside Donaldson Funeral Home.

  • At 1:47, we’re now on Main Street—heading west beside the infamous Laurel Hotel, with its distinctive stone facade and wooden porch.
  • Bob’s Cab appears just before we see the wooden front of Gayer’s Saddlery at 1:55.
  • The drive continues up to the end of Main Street, where we turn left onto 7th Street at (fittingly) the 2:16 mark. Here we pass St. Mary of the Mills church and cemetery.
  • At 2:37, there’s a brief glimpse of what is likely Laurel Municipal Swimming Pool, before the geography skips over to northbound Rt. 1 at the 2:38 mark—where we can clearly see the old 7-Eleven and Village Inn Pizza Parlor along Bowie Road.
  • Continuing northbound along Rt. 1, we pass the Exxon and Plain ‘n Fancy Donuts before getting a nice view of Safeway and Dart Drug, which sat just beside the railroad tracks and my old neighborhood of Steward Manor.

And that’s about where our drive through 1973 comes to an end, sadly. But any chance to step back in time—especially in a moving vehicle like this—is pretty amazing. I’ve found myself comparing the footage with Google Street Views of the same stretches of road today, just to see how much has changed… and how much has surprisingly stayed the same.

Many thanks again to Gary for sharing this footage! It’s also a reminder to everyone to check their own old home movies and family photo albums, as you never know what might turn up.

 

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Laurel’s Link to Sports (Collectors) History

When I was about 11 years old, I started collecting baseball and football cards. As a sports fan, the early 1980s was an exciting time to be living in Laurel, Maryland—literally midway between the 1982 Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins and the 1983 World Series Champion Baltimore Orioles.

It was around that time that Mike McNeal, one of my best friends in the neighborhood, gave me something that upped the ante: a handful of plastic protector sheets for my collection. He’d found them at a place called “Den’s Collectors Den”, which was tucked away in the Laureldale Business Center off Rt. 198 in Maryland City, just behind what was then the Toyota dealership on Laureldale Drive. How he ever found it, I still don’t know; but one day, his mom drove us both there to stock up.

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These plastic sheets are common today, and come in more shapes and sizes than ever—in fact, I use Ultra Pro Platinum sheets for the bulk of my Lost Laurel stuff: 8″ x 10″ photos, matchbook covers, 4″ x 6″ postcards… and, of course, Bob Windsor football cards.

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But those early sheets from Den’s Collectors Den are even more special today—the name and Laurel address were embossed right into the plastic!

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Admittedly, I was never what you’d call a serious collector. I liked finding cards of my favorite players, and trading with friends; and to some degree, the design of those old cards might have even played a small part with me eventually becoming a graphic designer. But at the time, the concept of “value” never really entered my mind. I knew that older cards were certainly worth more, but that was about the extent of it. Of course, now I cringe at the memory of the countless rookie cards I let slip through my fingers… Cal Ripken and Rickey Henderson… Joe Montana and John Elway… *sigh* But I digress.

No, back then it was all for fun—as it should be. And part of the fun was discovering the tools of the collecting trade itself, and there was no better guide to such things than a catalog from Den’s Collectors Den.

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Absolutely stuffed with products and information, the catalogs themselves were something to behold. More than anything, Den’s promoted an array of baseball card pricing guides—which were updated every year to give collectors (even amateurs like me) a guideline for card values. It was an added thrill to look up a particular card in your collection, and find that it was more valuable than others. In my case, this usually meant a difference of about 40¢. But again, I digress.

1984 Street and Smith Dens Ad

These price guides also included a “condition guide”, which showed you the basics for grading cards—everything from “mint condition” to “poor”.

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What I didn’t realize at the time (and, in fact, only recently learned) was that the whole concept of sports card pricing guides essentially began with Den’s Collectors Den—specifically, the owner, Dennis “Denny” Eckes.

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Dennis W. Eckes, 1983 (Photo: The Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide Number 5)

Denny had produced a rudimentary handbook between 1975 and 1978, called “The Sport Americana Checklist”—a nearly 100-page, saddle-stitched black and white booklet that was a mishmash of typeset lists, thumbnail images to represent each card type, and numerous late additions clearly made with a common typewriter. It was exactly what the title claimed—a basic checklist of every baseball card issued since 1948, and some generalized pricing information added to the backmatter. But in this completely uncredited book was the basic formula for what would become the modern sports card price guide.

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The 1975 checklist booklet.

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Detail from the 1975 booklet. Hmm… I should check into whether or not I’m related to #392 Bob Friend.

 

Scan 218 Den's ad, 1978 checklist back

Everything changed the very next year, when Denny teamed up with a statistician and fellow collector named Dr. James Beckett. Yes, that Dr. James Beckett—the one who would eventually launch Beckett Media, the world’s preeminent authority on collecting. In 1979, they produced what is today universally acknowledged as the first price guide of its kind. And as you can see on the title page, it was published and distributed by Den’s Collectors Den of Laurel, Maryland.

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Due to demand, there were actually two versions of the first Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide in 1979. And when I say “in demand”, I mean it—kids and adults alike clamored for the book, and most weren’t exactly gentle with it in their haste to discover the value of the hidden gems in their collection:

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Someone was determined to hold this copy together by any means necessary. (Photo: eBay)

The edition with the white cover was the original, and is the Holy Grail of price guides if there ever was one. But shortly thereafter, an alternate cover was designed that included the “Baseball Card” logo in a custom typeface—this would appear on all subsequent issues under the Sport Americana banner. And on the back cover of both was a full-page, full-color ad for Den’s Collectors Den.

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Inside cover & title page of the updated version, which included author bios.

Eckes and Beckett didn’t stop there. Throughout the early 1980s, they expanded the Sport Americana brand with additional books, including the Alphabetical Baseball Card Checklist (1979) and the Baseball Memorabilia and Autograph Price Guide (1982).

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All the while, Den’s Collectors Den—the physical store in Laurel—continued its success. The price guides, plastic protector sheets, and other goodies were hot sellers.

Always the collector, Denny traveled the country, participating in the fledgling sports card trading show circuit—which itself is a massive industry today. In his dealings, he’d frequently unearth rare items which he’d typically manage to share with the collecting community in some shape or form. A perfect example was his discovery of previously unpublished artwork that matched the 1934-36 series of the National Chicle Company’s popular Diamond Stars set. A blank-backed proof sheet of 12 additional cards was determined to be the series’ 1937 extension that never was; and Denny ultimately had the proof reproduced and the cards brought to life in 1981. He even reinterpreted the classic wrapper itself, which bears his company’s name and Laurel address.

DIAMOND STARS WITH WRAPPER 1981

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For $3, you could buy a professionally-printed set of 12 cards that completed a legendary collection that had been cut short some 45 years earlier.

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This type of “reprint” was extremely rare at the time, and it inspired Denny to create yet another niche in the market. Den’s Collectors Den also carried similar extension sets and reprints produced by other manufacturers, such as the 1952 Bowman set by TCMA.

Den's 1952 Bowman Extension ad

I’ve heard from a number of collectors and hobbyists who knew Denny Eckes personally, and I’ve never heard a negative thing about the man. Naturally, I was curious as to what became of him, as there seemed to be very little information beyond the final books he produced in 1990—expanding into football and basketball price guides, as well as a book of baseball players’ agents’ mailing addresses for autograph hunters.

Unfortunately, I found the answer in the June 1991 issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, one of the many expanded publishing efforts that James Beckett had taken on after his early success with Denny and Sport Americana. Filling the first page of that issue is a moving tribute—a eulogy to Dennis W. Eckes, who’d passed away unexpectedly in his sleep on April 15, 1991. He was only 48. The eulogy was written by Dr. Beckett himself, and paints a glowing portrait of a true visionary whose influence is still being felt in what has become a bigger business than ever before.

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Denny Eckes, who ran the inconspicuous little sports memorabilia shop in a Laurel industrial park, made quite a splash in his short lifetime. My only personal experience with him was some 30 years ago—as a kid at his glass display counter, eager to plop down my meager allowance at 25¢ per plastic sheet for my football cards. But the products he sold and the pastime he promoted have certainly stuck with me all these years, and I’m grateful to finally know and share a bit more about his legacy. Hopefully, someone who knows his story better than I do will be able to help shed even more light on this remarkable man.

 

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