Ehrich “Rick” Goebel sits surrounded by packed boxes. Drawings printed and taped to the front of the parcels showcase their contents, including Easter Bunny costumes and papier-mâché heads of the dwarves from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” He’s preparing for one of the last shipments out of A.T. Jones & Sons, a theatrical costume shop and Baltimore institution.
The clown heads in the window, the unofficial guardians of North Howard Street, will soon be taken down. The knight that greeted guests at the shop entrance will be packed away. Everything has slowly made its way to the back of the store for sending to a warehouse in Ohio.
For more than 150 years, A.T. Jones & Sons provided costumes for some of the city’s most colorful productions and events, from operas such as “Carmen” and “Aida” to theme parties. But when the parties and performances were canceled during the COVID-19 shutdown, Goebel, the son of late operator and owner George F. Goebel, knew the storied business couldn’t survive. Pandemic relief money was given to venues, but not those who worked behind the scenes, he said. But he calls himself lucky for coming to terms with the end.
“Our people were really old. Our skills were really old. We did everything really old,” said Rick Goebel, 63.
Even when Goebel was young, the shop felt retro. When his father took him there at night, ”It was a very 19th-century feeling to the building and it had a strong smell of moth flakes and dry cleaning fluid, which sort of permeated. So it sort of knocked you over almost when you came in,” he said.
He still has dreams anchored by those early memories of the shop. He hears from former employees who tell him they dream of the shop, too.
People are so connected to this place, he said, because of his father, who worked here since 1950. “My father was really a special person,” Goebel said. “He loved the business and the business loved him. I mean, people loved him. He was really the business.”
George Goebel passed away during the pandemic, but Rick said his father also knew the part the shop played for a generation of Charm City revelers was in its final act. It is easier for Rick to say goodbye, though, knowing George doesn’t have to sit with him here among the boxes.
“You know, this was the best job I ever had and all that,” Goebel said as he held back tears and spoke about the memories contained in the walls of the store. His time there may have been work, but it also taught him how to live.
“You learn to be accepting,” he said. “You learn to accept everybody and everything for what they are.”
The shop was a safe haven for the LGBTQIA+ community and for workers who had a difficult home life. His father made sure of that.
Among the racks of costumes and masks and sewing machines, no one ever had to pretend to be anyone else.