Ready For Another Riot: Fells Point business owners worry about the effects of more unrest

The two-headed duck, four-legged chicken, and son of Dracula are already prepared for people to begin looting if one or more of the six Baltimore Police Department cops accused of assaulting and killing Freddie Gray are found innocent of the charges levied against them.

Robert Gerber has made sure that they and all the other bizarre items and precious antiquities in his Fleet Street store, The Antique Man, will be shielded from future chaos by keeping up the plywood boards he placed over his windows during the April unrest. Gerber, 72, said he debated whether to put the boards over his store windows after the protests surrounding the death of 25-year-old Gray became heated. He finally took the extra security step one day before the riot. Six months later, those boards continue to conceal the store's decades-old treasures, in part because Gerber is worried that Baltimore will be rocked by another riot if the community becomes outraged over the outcome of the trials for the six cops. "The windows alone are $4,000," Gerber said, "and I figured to heck with it, I'll just plywood them up and go with that. And I'll take them down when the trials are over."

The first of the trials for the six police officers is scheduled to begin for Nov. 30.

"When that trial goes down, I'll be here," he said. "I'll stay here until it quiets down. I live across the street, so it's easy to spend the nights here, which I did for about a week last time."

Some Fleet Street stores were hit hard by the April riot and have yet to recover from crimes of opportunity that took place during the chaos and left businesses in financial disarray. London Richardson, the 37-year-old owner of London Couture Boutique, had to pay out of pocket to re-open her store after a group of people broke down the door and stole anything they could pick up or rip off the walls. "The cash register was outside," she said. "They took the mannequins. They took the mirrors off the wall. I just couldn't believe it."

Richardson said her insurance company, Allstate Insurance, is still investigating the incident and has yet to reimburse her for the stolen inventory or damages. The painful, drawn-out experience has prompted the first-time business owner to make plans to secure the boutique before Oct. 13. "I'm definitely going to board up," she said. "I think I'm going to stay down here that night, just in case."

Gerber is equally concerned about the future. Inside his antique store are the type of items that people typically pay to see at Ripley's Believe It or Not. He has a glass display case that contains a two-headed duck and a four-legged chicken, which were long ago stuffed by a taxidermist. They share a space with a shrunken head and a foot that was ripped off a man's body during a train accident. Nearby sits a 825-pound ball of string that was once the centerpiece attraction of Haussner's Restaurant and the skeleton of a fanged-teeth baby.

Gerber said he started acquiring his "freak show" items more than three decades ago, not long after he decided to supplement his full-time mechanic job with money earned from hauling junk to the dump. He was driving to the dump one day when a guy honked his horn in a frenzy, convinced him to pull over, and offered $150 for everything in the truck.

The unexpected encounter prompted Gerber to teach himself how to buy and resell antiques and used items. Over time, he gained a reputation for purchasing unusual objects, which is how he came to own a chicken that could once scamper across the floor on its four legs like a dog chasing a fire engine. "Everybody knew that I liked weird stuff and back then it was like some of my stuff started popping out of the woodwork because of yard sales, stuff like that," he said. "They would call me, and I would buy."

Gerber has bought and sold antiques and other items for more than three decades. He owns one of the last remaining Fleet Street antique shops. He has continued to do business in the area even though his fellow antique shop owners have relocated to the county, where the laws for buying and reselling goods are far more lenient.

The Baltimore Police Department requires store owners to file police reports for all secondhand objects they buy and refrain from reselling for 10 to 18 days, said Det. Denise Johnson, a 20-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department's Pawn Shop Unit. Meanwhile, the Baltimore County Police Department does not have a resell holding period for what spokesman Cpl. John Wachter describes as "hard goods." The county only requires store owners to refrain from reselling jewelry for 18 days, he said.

Without city laws to hamper them, county store owners are free to "buy something stolen and sell it two minutes later" without repercussions, Gerber said. "I'm the only one I know that does police reports and all the other guys left," he said. "They went to the county so that they don't have to do police reports."

But The Antique Man might leave Fleet Street too, if unrest resurfaces in Baltimore again.

Gerber and his wife, Debra, have looked into closing down their business within the next few years. The next round of unrest or rioting could speed up those plans. "We've had a lot of offers on the building," he said. "Even today, we had a guy come, a Realtor, and ask me what I wanted for it. So, we're close."

Richardson has only been running a boutique on Fleet Street since January, but she is already willing to make the same decision to leave should another round of looting ripple through the Fells Point area. "I would leave," she said. "I would definitely leave this area. I don't want to sound like I'm running, but it's a lot to deal with."

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