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Baldinger's Market is 'a destination, not a store'

Sunday, October 17, 1999

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For 63 years, workers at Baldinger's Market have gotten along just fine with a 19th-century wooden cash register that won't ring up a sale higher than $9.99.

  Chelsea Marowsin, 4, just can't decide what candy she wants while her sister, Noelle, 2, inspects her selections. Each girl was allowed ton pick 10 pieces. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

They never needed price scanners or even a hand-held calculator to figure out how much a customer owed them. They didn't take credit cards, either, just cash or checks.

But after the past month, Baldinger's manager Betty Sabo said she had nearly been driven to install an electronic gadget she once swore she would never need. So many people have been dialing the market to inquire about its future that Sabo said she might have to plug in an answering machine if she wants to get any work done.

For nearly two months, Sabo and the other nine workers at the landmark market in Butler County have been besieged by worried callers, shoppers and even people who have written letters to ask: Is the store being closed?

"The phone's been ringing off the wall. It's been an upsetting time," said Sabo, 72, of Zelienople, who went to work at Baldinger's as a teen-ager and stayed for 56 years.

"It makes me sick to think it might not be here anymore. But we're all hoping for the best and asking people who love the store to speak up for us."

Prompting the slew of questions is Chicago-based Burnham Partners. The developer announced plans in September to build a $100 million business park on 170 acres in Jackson, between Cranberry and Zelienople.

Burnham has a sales agreement to purchase that property from relatives and heirs of the late Allan and Dorothy Baldinger, who sold a treasured stamp collection and used the proceeds to open a market and restaurant in 1936.

Baldinger's Market, a low-slung frame structure that looks more like a shed than a supermarket, sits at Routes 19 and 528, smack in the middle of the land Burnham hopes to acquire.

The store's owner, Dorothy Baldinger's sister, Lois Dodge, didn't want the store to go out of business, but has retired and now spends much of her time in Florida.

Burnham's proposal calls for 1.2 million square feet of warehouse space, as well as at least two hotels on the wooded, rural property. Burnham also has offered to donate 13 acres to be used to build a YMCA.

Burnham has not closed on the sale of the land or store, and its plans are so tentative that they haven't been submitted to Jackson officials for review. Company President Rob Halpin said last week that he didn't expect that to happen for a couple of months.

'It's got its own charm'

Betty Sabo, manager of Baldinger's, sorts through some of the many cookie cutters in the store. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

But as news of Burnham's pending purchase spread through the North Hills and beyond, generations of Baldinger's customers started to fret that the old-fashioned, wood-floored market might be closed and torn down.

Where else could they go to find everything from Beanie Babies to dried lily flowers used in Oriental cookery?

Where else but Baldinger's could they find sturdy metal cookie cutters for every occasion, or ethnic spices and supplies for the holiday dishes of their heritage? Who else has a wood-encased, hand-cranked telephone on the wall, a butter churn in one corner and an entire room stuffed with cheery red-and-white draped tables that groan under the weight of hundreds of jars of penny candy?

"There's no place like it. It's got its own charm," said Debby McCreary of Cranberry, whose daughters, who are 8 and 11, got wind of the market's rumored closing and sent her to amass a serious stash of their favorite candies.

"It would be such a shame to tear it down. I can tell you, a lot of people would miss it."

To the joy of the McCreary girls and other fans of the market, their fears may have been premature.

Halpin, who has never been in the store, said he was startled recently to be contacted by people from Western Pennsylvania who want to take over and run the store. Until then, he hadn't realized the store had so many devoted customers.

Halpin declined to identify the people who have contacted him, but said his company now saw the possibility of retaining the store as "an interesting component to our development."

"There's been a great deal of interest from various parties who want to renovate and preserve the store," he said. "It's certainly premature to predict the outcome of those discussions, but it has caught our attention."

To Sabo, that's news as sweet as the jelly beans she has ordered for next Easter in a gamble that the store will still be open. She's not taking chances, though.

She asks the many customers who quiz her about the store's future to write a letter or sign a petition asking township and Burnham officials to draft a development plan that would save the store.

At first glance, Baldinger's isn't flashy. The narrow parking lot is unpaved and sloping. White paint applied years ago is peeling and flaking from the outer walls. Above the front door, the store's philosophy of "Foods From All Nations" is painted in fading red and black, just below a roof that isn't too dependable in a heavy rain.

But inside the bright-red front door is a staggering display of foil-wrapped, imported Swiss truffles, an array of Italian cream-filled cookies and seven kinds of kuchen, a rich, fruit-filled cake from Germany.

Mexican, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Middle Eastern ingredients are organized by country and stacked on rustic wooden shelves nailed to mustard-yellow walls or on tables in the center of the market's three rooms.

Cookie cutters, from the size of a quarter to a life-size duck, spill from bins that line an entire wall. On the opposite wall are baking supplies, and cooking utensils take up another wall.

Juice in wax bottles

Need tea? More than 50 kinds are available in boxes and tins. Ditto for coffee. How about rice? Choose from arborio from Italy, sweet from Japan, short-grain, long-grain or wild grains from Minnesota.

Try not to gag at the pink lamb's tongues floating in jars, the lollipops with worms in the center or the bikini-clad stud pictured on the label of the "Hot Buns on the Beach" brand of hot-pepper sauce.

For the gourmet cook, there are fancy, ribbon-tied tubes of soup mix and packages of white chocolate or raspberry cappucinno mix. There's scone mix from Scotland and crocks of gooseberry, lingonberry or quince preserves to spoon on top.

Paper pinatas and flags hang from the ceiling. Handmade Christmas ornaments of wafer-thin glass from Germany and elaborately hand-painted nesting dolls from Russia -- some as small as a thimble with even tinier dolls inside -- hold places of honor on tables and in glass cases.

Behind the main counter is Dorothy Baldinger's hat collection, with flower-trimmed pillboxes, a feathered cloche, a burgundy velvet beret and a bonnet from the early 1800s that, with its first owner, rode across the country in a Conestoga wagon.

Then there's the candy. An entire room, once used as a restaurant, is chock-full of tables, each bearing 80 to 100 glass bowls filled with licorice and Swedish fish, Wacky Taffy and Smartees, juice-filled wax bottles and candy-filled paper straws. Grab a paper bag and start filling it -- each piece is really just a penny.

"You can't close this place. I just found it," first-time visitor Bonnie Smith, 50, of Brighton, told Sabo last week as she browsed among sweets she'd loved as a child. Seconds later, she squealed with delight to discover boxes filled with both red-wax "Sugar Lips" and black "Fun Fangs."

"From the highway, [the market] doesn't look like much, but then you come in and you can't believe it," said Smith's friend, Dorothy Brooks, 60, of Vanport, whose husband discovered Baldinger's more than 40 years ago while working as a truck driver.

"I always bring people here with me because I was so excited to see it. It's a destination, not a store."

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