In Baltimore, a bait shop is a neighborhood icon

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Suspended over a sidewalk in an old row-house neighborhood of East Baltimore is an iconic, art-deco neon sign that draws magical attention after dark. It depicts a hooked striped bass outlined in glaring white, leaping from a green-crested chop of water. “TACKLE” is emblazoned in bright yellow across the fish’s arcing body. Underneath, in bold red neon, is “TOCHTERMAN,” the family name this landmark institution has worn for nearly a century.

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Located blocks from the Northwest Harbor of the Patapsco River and miles from a clean and fishable creek, this classic bait and fishing tackle shop dates from 1916. The legendary Maryland angler Lefty Kreh, 90, purchased his very first rod and reel here. Ted Williams was a customer, along with Saudi princes, Maryland governors and many notable outdoors writers.

On a recent Saturday of an unseasonably cold early spring, Tochterman’s, at 1925 Eastern Ave. in historic Fells Point, was abuzz with pale-faced anglers prepping mentally for the rockfish season. Bundled up as if about to cast off the lines and jump aboard a fishing vessel, they knew they would find whatever they were looking for here. In early-season mode, they were anxious to purchase something to help bring their noble sport more clearly into focus.

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Down a narrow corridor, past an antique dumbwaiter and up a creaky wooden staircase, a three-hour classroom session on trolling for stripers was underway. Dave Bradley lectured a dozen male anglers and a girl of about 12 on the fine arts of rigging a parachute, trolling baits, bottom bouncing, towing planer boards and tying knots. Assorted equipment and merchandise were passed out as keepers to provide some fish-on stage props.

As the morning progressed, the store — filled to the gills with equipment and a forest of fishing rods in an angler’s retail paradise — became crowded with nautical brethren — men, women and children alike. Every square inch of wall space is covered with items hanging in plastic clusters and displayed on counters, in locked cabinets, and stashed about here and there. Stowed in files, bins, cabinets, sliding trays and drawers stacked one upon the other and out of reach are an amazing number of odd parts and pieces, many of which are so minuscule they can easily roll out of a man’s palm.

Tony Tochterman, 65, is the third-generation owner of what is perhaps the oldest family-owned bait-and-tackle shop in America still in business at its original location. A short, chubby man with a round face and neatly combed gray hair, Tochterman dashes to and from different counters — winding line, spinning reels and answering questions about fishing. Some parts catalogs are the thickness of old Manhattan telephone books.

Tony and Dee aare the third-generation owners of Tochterman's. They've run the store since 1981 and live accross the street, just as previous Tochtermans did.

Dee, his perky, ever-smiling wife, also scurries around to serve customers and tends to the manual cash register. She greets regulars she hasn’t seen in a while with wraparound hugs and calls them “hon,” “sweetie” and “love.” By the end of April she disappears into a nook to become “The Worm Girl” in charge of the lucrative, demanding live bloodworm bait market. In an adjoining cubbyhole, techie Gene King has been repairing reels here for 27 years. Supplies and parts are stored in many shelves of overhead drawers and bins, accessible only by ladder.

Bill Heavey wrote about Tochterman’s last year in Field & Stream magazine, quoting salesman Rich Holewinski, who has known Tochterman for 40 years: “I’ve seen guys barge in here with busted-up tackle, claiming it’s defective. No receipt, sometimes stuff we don’t even carry. Tony helps them. They come in angry but leave smiling. Because that’s what Tony does. Another time, a guy’s brother died, left some old reels. He offers them to Tony for $30. Tony comes back with a $200 check. Tells the guy, ‘If I bought them at $30, I’d be stealing.’ ”

Computers have never made headway in this place of business, and how the Tochtermans keep track of their inventory is a mystery. In the upper floors of this line of five single row houses cobbled together into one building is a vast horde of boxes filled with fishing paraphernalia. The antique stuff, packed away for decades, is an undocumented treasure trove.

When Tochterman’s opened 99 years ago, the business was run from one row house as a mom-and-pop confectionery selling snacks, fish and soft-shell crabs, live bait, fishing hooks and lures. Thomas and Anna Tochterman lived above the shop and were practically on call 24/7 in season. Tommy Jr. and Antoinette (Toni) took over as T.G. Tochterman & Sons and moved into a row house across the street when the family grew. Anthony (Tony), the surviving son, assumed control in 1981, and he and Dee (DeAnne) are the third-generation mom-and-pop owners. They have been together for 25 years and also live across the street in a row house.

Tochterman's, which occupies five row houses, is stacked to the rafters with equipment and anglers' treasures.

In the old days, the Tochtermans sold live bait on the sidewalk, and patrons paid in cash on the honor system. That could not happen today, and although more small row houses on side streets are being restored, commercial Eastern Avenue has not kept pace. Traffic is heavy, parking is difficult, and crime is still a problem.

T.G. and Toni were open from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. during the season. “The store was their whole life,” says Tony. “If customers wanted something and the store was closed, they simply phoned or knocked on the front door, and they would open. Hey, who needs more than five hours’ sleep? But this was their work ethic.”

For a while, Tony and Dee continued this tradition but eventually tired of it. “We would get random calls at home at all hours just to talk shop or ask where the fish were biting. We had to get an unlisted number, keep our front room unoccupied and never answer the door,” he says. “After all, we’re open seven days a week, anyway [May to January], and figure that’s enough. Soon our customers got the message. But even when anglers spot us when we’re out for dinner, they think we automatically want to talk fishing. Sometimes they’ll even sit down at our table. Don’t get us wrong. We love them like family, but we get enough fish-on talk as it is.”

In additon to the latest fishing gear, the store houses vintage and rare equipment - enough for a future museum.

Generations of customers, many of whom come from far away, have a close relationship with the Tochtermans. They have a proprietary feeling for the store. Grandparents who came here as children bring their grandchildren, as new fishing rods replace the old. There’s something reassuring about still finding the store in business — it retrieves and revives fond memories.

Tony started working at the store at age 12, as his father did before him. He is the last generation. There are no little Tonys lurking behind the counter, but he has no plans to retire, sell out or move away. “I could never sever connections with this place,” he explains. In fact, he’s expanding his clothing line this year to include a broader selection of fishing wear and is developing another department or two. He also wants to set up a fishing museum in an upstairs conference room. “We have so much old stuff — some of it historic and dating back to the early 1900s. I’m just beginning to look through this horde and sort out things.

“Tradition dies hard here, and I want to preserve the reputation my hard-working family built,” he adds. “Why, the name itself is a famous trademark. When we restored our classic sign out front, the craftsman who made it in 1938 came out of retirement to refinish it.”

As a non-angler, one item I looked for was a cap displaying the trademark striper with the Tochterman name. Oddly enough, there were none. Other items conspicuously missing were snapshots of anglers holding freshly caught trophies. “We’d have to open an upstairs floor to display thousands of those, so it’s best we don’t display any,” Tony says, laughing.

One curious tradition, which has nothing to do with fishing but is oddly typical of a way of life in the Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin, involves Tony’s haircuts. “Nooney” Lamantia, 90, is a loyal customer who comes from his barbershop across town to trim Tony’s hair. Nooney may not fish anymore, but he still arrives at 7:30 a.m. at least once a month to carry on this barbering favor that began some 50 years ago.

'Nooney' Lamantia still comes in to give Tony his monthly trim.

Luckily, all sorts of traditions have a hard time dying at Tochterman’s.

June 2015 issue