Inside the Baltimore Hardware Store That’s Helping Residents Rebuild

Janice McCulley almost lost her hardware store during Monday night’s Baltimore riots. Her customers wouldn’t let that happen.

By Mary Wiltenburg.  This article originally appeared in Esquire on April 30, 2015

WEST BALTIMORE—It’s typical Janice McCulley to worry more about her Bolton Hill neighbors than that man-sized hole in her wall. That’s why the 2,000 or so residents of this old Baltimore neighborhood love her store, and why, on Monday night, a handful of them saved it. When word spread that kids had started breaking her store’s windows, folks from surrounding blocks rushed over to Belle Hardware, and used every scrap of plywood in the place to board them up.

“Grabbed my hammer, grabbed my baseball bat, and hit the bricks,” said Jake Boone, who lives one street over. “And we beat ’em. Got things closed up, and sealed up. And just in the nick of time, because then it sort of got out of hand.”

They risked it because Janice is that kind of person. The sort who, on Tuesday morning, took in stride the sight of her boarded-up storefront, the gash in the wall where looters broke through from the laundromat next door, the empty shelves behind her register where drills and Dremels used to sit. The morning after parts of Baltimore burned, Janice was still Janice. And she had customers in line, one of whom had brought along a pet. “Be careful people, there’s glass all over,” Janice announced. “I have done so much sweeping, but I don’t want the puppy to get hurt.”

On Monday night, word spread quickly on social media and among Janice’s customers: Belle had been hit. Residents were trying to scare off the looters, and there were no cops in sight. Janice says she called 911 repeatedly, choking on pepper spray, telling the dispatcher that hers and the other stores in her mall—the Save-A-Lot grocery, the laundry, the Rite Aid—were under attack. Bolton Hill, a neighborhood of 19th century row-homes where F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived, now home to the Maryland Institute College of Art, usually has one of the most robust police presences in the city. But on Monday, no one came. As the violence escalated, Janice’s husband, a retired police officer, had to pull her out of the store. They hunkered down in their car across the street, watching van-loads of people drive up to loot the stores.

“I’ve been here 38 years,” Janice said. “I put every item on these shelves. It’s hard to let go. I wanted to go down with my ship.”

Belle survived. Considering the damage elsewhere, the store’s interior isn’t so badly off. The other three businesses fared much worse. At Rite Aid, the floor was almost completely covered with broken or discarded merchandise. Had it not been for the neighbors who fortified Belle, Janice says, her store would likely have lost everything. Around 7 a.m. Tuesday, volunteers started showing up to help Janice clean up. Neighbor Stephanie Streb had watched looters running up and down her street all night with armloads of toilet paper, diapers, and dish detergent. Walking over to the clean-up early Tuesday morning, she saw the last of the looters pulling out of the parking lot.

“One woman actually waved to me as she drove by and said, ‘Thank you,’ as if I had just made some kind of donation,” Streb said.

By 10 a.m., dozens of folks were streaming through Belle’s door to check on Janice, and to buy gloves and rakes for neighborhood clean-ups (at a discounted price, Janice says, out of gratitude). There were young people with guitars, old people with dreds. She knew them, of course. Susan Armstrong, who has lived in the area for just a year, was up early to join the effort. Outside the drug store, she threw away prescription bags that she found scattered on the ground. Finally, mid-morning, a police car pulled up. Janice was mordant.

“Oh, a policeman! Let me see what one looks like.”

When the young officers—regulars, whom Janice also knows—came inside to take her report, she chided them. “I’m not taking it out on you, but where were ya?”

One was at Mondawmin Mall. The other was guarding City Hall. Janice told them their bosses should have turned her mall’s parking lot into a command post. “This was not necessary,” she pleaded. “It really wasn’t.”

“It’s like this over the whole city,” one officer said apologetically. Meanwhile, neighbors kept arriving, on two legs and four. As usual, Belle had what they needed.

“Sorry about everything!” a man called from the doorway, holding a leash.

“Thank you,” Janice called back warmly, like always. “Just be careful of the dog, because there’s so much glass around.”

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