With Belle Hardware gone, what will become of the shopping center?

Belle Hardware, Bolton Hill’s only hardware store, has closed for good. Next question: what does the future hold for the half-empty strip mall where the store was located?

BHCA’s board this month passed a resolution saluting the family-owned store and its manager, Mickey Fried, for nearly 45 years of service to Bolton Hill and Baltimore. The store shut its doors on June 6, a victim, Fried said, of rising rent, poor property maintenance, tight margins and two years of COVID complicating retail businesses everywhere. City Council member Eric Costello secured a council resolution thanking Fried for the shop’s contribution to the community.

Save-a-Lot, a budget grocery franchise, continues to operate on the west end of the retail mall, with Walgreens at the other end. Now there are two big blank spaces in the middle of the strip and asphalt parking lot taking up half a block at 300 W. McMechen St. A former laundromat space has been vacant for more than three years, adjacent to the slot occupied by Belle Hardware, which was named for Fried’s grandmother. Both businesses were damaged during the 2015 Freddie Gray uprising. Walgreens was robbed last September.

The mall has been there for more than half a century and once was anchored by SuperFresh, an upscale brand owned by the A&P grocery chain. Two people with Bolton Hill connections have said the entire one-story strip mall, which needs major renovation or a tear-down, is for sale and that one or more local developers has expressed interest.

The property is owned by Save-a-Lot, a St. Louis-based real estate and grocery supply chain that, in turn, is owned by a Canadian hedge fund, Onex, that has dozens of companies. Save-a-Lot food stores operates a dozen locations in the city and Baltimore County, although it is not clear if they are owned by the same franchisee. Nationwide there are 900 stores averaging about 15,000 square feet.

For Bolton Hill residents in need of a light bulb or a single screw without driving across town, the nearest surviving independent hardware store is Hardware Plus at 2211 Pennsylvania Ave., (410) 728-4400, across from the Post Office. Eddie Lewis has owned and operated the store for 28 years and for a long time lived upstairs. At roughly 2,700 square feet, it is slightly larger than Belle, and has a musty atmosphere and packed shelves. They carry a wide array of hardware products and lumber, and do window and screen repairs.

Robert Cannon, the store manager, has been there for 13 years. His uncle once worked for Belle. Hardware Plus is open from 7 a.m. – 5 p.m. M-F and Saturdays until 3 p.m. It is closed on Sundays.

Bill Hamilton