Hi's Variety Has Been Offering A Little Bit Of Everything To Fells Point Residents For About 50 Years
What do golf balls, car wax, and old books about America's self-inflicted doom have in common? Nothing until they find their way to Hi's Variety in Fells Point (1727 Fleet St.). This strange eclectic urban general store feels like an endangered cultural repository thanks to its merchandise and the store owners themselves, who serve as a lingering vestige of a time when a family-run businesses plied the strait and narrow while taking devilish pleasure in the cast of wise guys and neighborhood characters traipsing through their doors.
Most locals know Hi's Variety as an almost mystical place where you can get just about anything: plaster screens, bike tube patches, a porcelain flamingo clock. Are those black and white TVs on the back counter actually for sale? Hi's frontman is Pat Wrocinski, a thin, baby-faced man in his 50s, who steps out of the shadows behind the counter and in a soft kindergarten teacher's voice asks, "Can I help you?" For the newcomer, the experience can seem a bit formal, but longtime neighborhood residents cherish Hi's Variety as a resource for a little bit of everything.
"Anything you want in the world [Wrocinski has] got it," says Dennis Switaj, who stopped in and secured a battery clip for a nine volt battery, something normally found in electronics stores "His memory is absolutely fantastic. You ask what you want, he thinks for a minute, and then goes off and he finds it. It can be the most obscure item."
But Hi's is more than a convenient place to grab some toilet paper or a putty knife or some fishing tackle, or a contour rubber hammer to knock dents out of a fender. As you talk to Pat Wrocinski, his brother Charles, and their mother, Helen, a picture evolves of Fells Point as a booming 1950s neighborhood of mobsters, hustlers, sailors, and zany characters.
The Wrocinskis work off each other like some kind vaudeville show, while your eyes dart back forth across the crowded shelves. Pat rattles off a list of long gone businesses: ship chandlers, manufacturers, clothiers like the Stag Store, and lumber yards. "You could smell the different woods when they were cutting," he says, and your eyes zero in on the handwritten sign reading $5.99 special on goose neck desk lamps.
"There is no way to describe then now," Pat says. "It was like a different world. The train used to come right down here." Your eyes focus on a stack of very used books with titles like The Fall of Television, The Fate of the Earth, This Was America, and The Last Place on Earth.
Time loses all value as a reference point when Charles, a master woodworker, pops in from his woodshop next door. A slender man perpetually covered in saw dust, with wild eyes and whipped-up short hair, Charles talks in a Baltimore staccato that hearkens back to pulp detectives and tells his stories with so much passion that he takes on the part of each character he conjures up.
One moment he talks about how the Hi's Variety building was once the Paradise Theater, an early Baltimore movie house. The next he's regaling you with tales of an armored-car robber and faithful customer, George Crisp, who had the distinction of having a bullet "bounce off his skull." Charles' steady stream of local history of mobsters and fringe folk is substantiated by yellowed newspapers that he retrieves from a woodpile in his store. "It was so fun being around these guys," he says. "It was real life. You didn't have to go to the movies. You had actors coming in and they all cried, giving you their sad-luck stories."
Hi's Variety started out in the 500 block of Ann Street in the 1950s as part of the High's Dairy Store chain. In 1960, Pat and Charles' father, Charles Wrocinski Sr., moved the store to its present location. Even back then the Fells Point High's wasn't your standard convenience store--they made their own ice-cream sandwiches, a treat that sailors would beat a trail from the dock to sample. By the 1970s, a Food Town supermarket came into the neighborhood and undercut the corner grocers, and High's de-enfranchised the Wrocinskis' store, which went independent in 1981. Hence the name Hi's.
Hi's became a favorite stop for a breed of freelance salesmen known as jobbers, who would bounce from loading dock to warehouse looking to buy extra merchandise and sell it to little stores like Hi's. Being a character was practically a prerequisite in this line of work, and throughout the day the Wrocinskis would play host to a parade of hustlers, offering everything from coffee to toys. The king of the jobbers was a local named Hutty. As much as Pat and Charles like to talk about the gangster days--like how Al Capone once worked in a nearby lumber company (Charles produces an obituary of a local dry cleaner who recalled cleaning the mob boss' shirts)--their favorite tales are about how Hutty would put one over their father time and again, how, despite selling Hi's dented juice cans and scratched-up counter-tops, a visit from Hutty was always a welcomed performance.
A squat man who wore a 10-gallon hat, Hutty was harassed for autographs by kids mistaking him for Boss Hogg of The Dukes of Hazzard. Each time Hutty visited Hi's he would be there until closing, at 11 p.m. assuring their father that, this time, he was delivering a bona fide deal.
"He would come in and say, `I'm going to kill myself. I can't make a living. I can't make a living. If I had a rope I would hang myself,'" Charles says.
"And I would get him the rope," Pat says.
More times than not, Hutty would leave with a sale. When asked why his father continued to do business with Hutty, Charles is a bit stumped himself. "He just liked him. He put a spell on him, you wouldn't believe."
Pat and Charles Wrocinski talk with reverence of Charles Sr., who died in 1992. He could fix anything. He had a jeweler's eye. He could make sno-balls that drew in competitors trying to decipher the recipe. If only they had listened to his advice about the value of waterfront property, spoken at a time when anything along the harbor was seen as industrial wasteland. In particular, the memory of Charles Sr., Helen Wrocinski says, has kept her sons manning the store on a block where change unfolds as if orchestrated by stage hands changing a scene.
From his station behind the counter Pat bemoans the disappearance of the jobbers, the neighborhood locals, the sailors who used to literally toss money and charm bracelets to little kids. The new locals, he says, are a strange breed, "like gypsies," wheeling and dealing with homes like stocks and disappearing before a year's done. Real estate speculators call constantly to see if they can get their hands on the Wrocinskis' three adjacent properties.
The fact that Hi's Variety exists at all on a block where an old pigeon feed store and a merchant supply store have been rehabbed and opened as art galleries in the last month alone is a tribute to the Wrocinskis' wily merchant skills. And make no mistake, although Hi's may be a time warp, the old front door constantly jingles with new customers. Neighbors looking for a cold soda, a well-coiffed gent needing a key made, a contractor looking for a tube of caulking, a homeless man looking for a razor. Nobody leaves empty handed. If Pat doesn't grab the item from within arm's reach, he excuses himself to the magical back room and reappears with the basic necessity in hand.
Then in walks Jeffery Kaplan, the owner of nearby Super Linens. "I think today is stump the Hi's day," says Kaplan, whose grandfather started the Goldberg's department stores that dotted Baltimore at the turn of the 20th century. "I think I'm going to ask him for something that he does not have--that I'm willing to buy." A smile creeps onto Pat's face.
"Do you have a grill cover?" Kaplan asks.
Pat Wrocinski seems to sag a bit. "I do have grill covers but they are too small," he says. But then, perking up, he adds, "I do have a little tarp you can throw over it."
"You see that," Kaplan says. "He always has something you can use."
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