Only in Fell’s Point-XXV

Written by Mark Walker on Saturday, 14 November 2009. Posted in Reprints from "The Fell's 'Pointer"

Hi’s Variety -- Brothers Can You Revive a Time?

Hi’s Variety at 1727 Fleet St. offers “almost everything,” as the sign says, but especially the elements of my ‘50s childhood: a hardware, general store, grocery and 5&10, all in one. Brothers Charlie and Patrick Wrocinski have rarely been stumped when customers ask, “Do you have one of these?”
Hi's Variety

Their parents ran a similar business in the 500 block of S. Ann St. According to Patrick, their dad was from the old school, selling a bit of everything. He was also an expert self-taught jeweler. The Fleet St. shop initially was High’s but shortened to Hi’s when the ice cream chain started insisting on royalty payments. The Polish-descended parents opened it 50 years ago. It had been a movie theater--as I chronicled in a 2005 history of ‘Point movie theaters--opening in 1905 as one of the city’s earliest, the Paradise. Admission 5 cents.

According to Robert Headley Jr., who wrote the 1974 “EXIT: A History of Movies in Baltimore,” the theater seated 125 for silent films accompanied by live piano. During intermission, glass lantern slides offered the 1904 Great Baltimore Fire, the Passion Play, or vaudeville acts. To lure patrons, exhibitors gave away china and candy. After the theater closed, about 1912, it housed the Polish Press, a pool hall, an Arundel Ice Cream shop, and Siemek’s Meat Market.

Charlie, talking at a machine-gun pace, is an encyclopedia of Fell’s Point. Both know all the old-timers and remember when Fleet was Canton Street, much lower than now to accommodate a train that ran along it. Steers were driven down the track to slaughter houses between here and Highlandtown. His account of Prohibition--one hardware store would sell copper tubing while another specialized in distilling tanks, so no one became suspicious. During the day, a paint maker used shellac flakes to make house paint and at night he used them to make moonshine. Charlie described how one kid was always pushing a baby carriage. But he had no sister. Under the blanket was moonshine for ersatz saloons.

Charlie recounts how Al Capone worked for a while out of a bar in Highlandtown and spread his illicit earnings around town for good ends, and how, during the early 1900s, water pumps and troughs served horses on Broadway, across from Hecht’s Reliable.

The brothers live above the store with their ill mother, 90, sharing in her care. To test their claim of offering “almost everything,” my editor, Lew Diuguid, showed up with a broken dimmer switch knob, c. 1988. “Oh, I don’t think so,” said Patrick, but he soon came back with one. “But I’ll bet you don’t have fly paper.” He did, by the spool or six-pack. “Surely not much call for that.” “You’d be surprised.” Customers were intervening for a paint brush, Utz chips and an order of custom-cut glass. The last test was for a metal wedge to set the handle of a sledge. “I bought your last one a year ago,” said Lew. Charlie said, “Take your pick, large or small, sixty cents.”

Years ago, Hi’s sold fishing tackle but that business has all but dried up. Still, a store window displays fishing items from a different era. Patrick takes account of the changes: once working class, the industries are now gone -- the lumber yards, box companies and foundries. Even the churches and schools are thinned. Much like me, the brothers were heartbroken when St. Stan’s closed. We feel the yuppies are too preoccupied with work, sleep, commuting and playing on computers.

Charlie is a master carpenter and woodworker. I am in awe of his self-taught skills. His work can be seen all over the city. He is known for his Formica work, inlays, and cornices. And if he needs an odd item, his brother can find it in the store.

About the Author

Mark Walker

Mark Walker lives in Harford County with his all-suffering wife and son but arrives early for his job at Bond St. Wharf as a financial planner for Johns Hopkins Uni- versity. He usually has a meeting or two before the re- turn commute. His affair with the ‘Point began when he and his two brothers reached eligibility for the bars--often sources of his ‘Pointer writing. Asked about his dedication to local issues, such as Rec Pier and funding for preservation, he replied, “I take up a parking space here but I like to think I pay back part of that. I often think that more out- of-towners who work here could do the same.” His early efforts, with the late Bob Keith, to keep revival of Rec Pier out of the hands of developers, has proved prescient 10 years hence. Walker is also a magician and his ultimate trick remains a challenge--abating the Point’s gentrification.

Mark Walker won the Fell's Point 9/11 Selfless Community Service Award on September 11, 2012.