An Account of Mano Swartz Furs

Several years ago, Richard Swartz, Mano Swartz Furs president, stumbled across an archival story from The Baltimore Sun recounting a brawl between his grandfather, furrier James Swartz, and a customer who had come into his store to buy a coat for his wife. “The article said there was a disagreement and then an assault,” recounts Richard. “It said that James Swartz was arrested and the other man was taken out in an ambulance . . . so I guess we know who won.” Sitting inside the stylish Lutherville-Timonium showroom he smiles proudly at the story—because Richard loves family lore.

“There is a thread of strength that runs through many of my family’s stories,” says Richard, his voice thick with a Baltimore accent, the result of living here for most of his 53 years. “Hard times make you strong—hard has wiped out a lot of businesses, but it’s about your interaction with those obstacles that can make you strong.”

Mano Swartz founder 1923 photograph

Indeed, the “fighting furrier” story is an apt metaphor for a family business—founded in 1889—that, despite the odds and the obstacles, still survives. Through the years, Mano Swartz has battled its way through the Great Depression (James Swartz lost part of the family fortune during that time), two recessions (the 1992 recession led to the business closing for a year), civil-rights opposition (in the ’50s, the store opened its doors to African-Americans—leading to an eventual death threat against James), and, of course, the wrath of animal-rights activists, who question the morality of wearing fur and try to make people feel threatened for choosing to wear it. (Who could forget Vogue’s fur-wearing editor Anna Wintour having a dead raccoon lobbed on her plate during a luncheon at The Four Seasons hotel?)

But 125 years since its founding, Mano Swartz is still going strong, selling furs,leathers and shearlings and restyling hundreds of coats (a “Mano makeover” they call it), and storing thousands of fur items—including a leopard rug given to James by his friend Winston Churchill—in a climate-controlled warehouse located several miles from the showroom.

Jimmie Swartz, Howard Street.      July 2, 1971

Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and Colt’s Quarterback Johnny Unitas have all been Mano loyalists. (“When I gave Johnny Unitas a price for a coat, he went into a huddle with his wife,” cracks Richard. “Here’s a guy who invented strategy.”) And although the heyday for traditional, full-length furs was back in the glamorous Dynasty era of the ’80s, Mano Swartz, one of four fur retailers remaining in Baltimore (down from 50 or 60, according to Richard), isn’t going away any time soon.

Swartz’s story is a classic tale of survival of the fittest that begins in the late 19th century in Hungary where “Papa”—the original Mano Swartz , that is—worked as a forester (a modern-day park ranger) in Kishvarda, a small city in the northeast.

“My great-grandfather lived in a typical European place where 100 families had all the money, and there was no middle class,” says Richard, who relishes recounting his family’s colorful history. “The government said, ‘What are we going to do with all these [poor] people?’ So they put them in the military for life.” To escape a lifetime of military service, Mano immigrated to New York City.

“He pursued what he knew well—animals,” says Richard. Like many other Jewish immigrants of the time, he got into the fur business, but he was an entrepreneur and pursued other avenues as well. Family legend has it that at one point, “Papa” headed to Colorado to capitalize on the California Gold Rush, entertaining the miners with his own “dance hall” (i.e. brothel) and even staging a bull fight, but the evening before the event, the animal escaped, so Mano, who had already collected his money, fled back to New York where he continued to work in fur. He eventually headed to Baltimore where he opened his eponymous store, Mano Swartz Furs, and later married Dina Saks (of the Saks Fifth Avenue family).

York Road in Towson, 1976-1992

For decades, Mano Swartz Furs was a Baltimore City fixture, first on Lexington Street and later on Howard Street before moving to York Road in Towson in 1976, The Village of Cross Keys in 1992, and finally to Falls Road in 2006. In the ensuing years, Mano groomed his son, James (who, in turn, groomed his son Mano II, who groomed son, Richard) to take over the business. Entrepreneurship was in the family genes.

“My grandfather [James] was way ahead of his time,” says Richard. “He created the Veteran’s Day sale in Baltimore after the Second World War and offered anyone with honorable discharge papers 10 percent off. There was no discounting in retail back then—this was not done. In one day, he sold 150 coats!”

 Originally printed in Baltimore Magazine © by Jane Marion. This article has been updated.