By DIANE PHILLIPS
At the southeast corner of Bay & Frederick Streets stands a store that seems to defy time. The sign above the door reads simply A BAKER & SONS, ESTABLISHED 1894. If you were alive when it opened, you would be 124 today and probably not remember the day it opened. But for most of the rest of us, we cannot remember a time when it did not exist nor when we were not fascinated by the fact that it remains, a survivor of the days when men’s shirts and baby clothes shared the same kind of tight plastic see-through protective wrapping.
The story of A Baker & Sons does not so much mirror the history of Bay Street as stand out like a stalwart sentry against changes that have transformed the street where locals once dressed up to shop and stroll. Less than a handful of stores remain, committed to the dignity that once defined the street of retail dreams. John Bull with its classy style and live grand piano concerts, The Linen Shop with its perfectly decorated windows and even more perfectly laid tables, Coin of the Realm with its brick rounded ceiling and staff who know everyone’s birthday, anniversary and whose transgression can be temporarily appeased with another piece of 14-carat gold and diamond-encrusted bling.
The irony, if there is one, is that all of those stores remain in the tender care of descendants of original family owners yet none, with one possible exception, could have been called a member of the Bay Street Boys.
The original owner of A Baker & Sons, according to a descendant, Robert “Robbie” Baker who now lives in Long Island, was Lebanese married to an Englishwoman and no one would sell to him. The nearby Catholic Church intervened, helping him buy the building where many of the 14 Baker siblings would later be born. Some believe the store is the oldest surviving shop on Bay Street. Tragically, the eldest son died at 19 as he was helping to put out the Bay Street fire of 1922. Three survive today, Robbie’s aunts Frieda, Mary and Virginia, known as Jean who was among those honoured by the government in 2015 for historic businesses and interests.
For years, two of the sisters would famously sit in the store, as much a part of the interior as the tall, hand-crafted mahogany cabinet stacked with felt bowlers and real Panama hats. The sisters, now in their late 80s and early 90s, do not get around as much anymore and yet in the crowded, dimly-lit shop it feels like the fascinating store quietly waits for them to re-appear, every square inch ready and stocked with the goods that continue to sell. Flannel shirts for men. Work socks, dress socks, stockings. Van Heusen shirts - originally made by the designer himself for A. Baker & Sons with the local label - were once the wearable status symbol of lawyers whose practice had arrived. A gentleman in a Van Heusen shirt and tie in the early to mid-20th Century was a better bet for success than a man squeezed into $500 Maison Margiela jeans today and if that Van Heusen-wearing someone were single, he’d be a bachelor with a following of hopefuls.
For decades, it would have been hard to overestimate the power of a wardrobe from A Baker & Sons and to this day, the white lace christening gowns that draw attention to barely visible windows graced with scotch-taped signs are the envy of those who wish they could afford to dress their babies up for photos of the church service. You can only imagine the mothers with their babes in arms wishing they could don their infants in such finery for a christening so memorable it could pull photos out of a phone and into a frame.
The walls of the store do not have space to talk. Every inch is packed with compartments crammed with goods - the shirts, nightgowns and underwear that cannot fit into a drawer are spread out on original glass countertops above the crowded cabinets built to hold as much soft stock as a narrow store can hold.
A corporate secretary remembers going to A. Baker & Sons for her first trip to London. “We had to have long johns and everyone knew there was only one place in Nassau. I still have those long johns,” she says. Another man remembers when his young son was going to be in a wedding and he had to find child-size suspenders. “Went right down to Baker & Sons and one of the ladies went upstairs and sure enough a little while later, she came down with three sets of suspenders for a young boy. We chose one and left and it was fine.”
The little shop that defies all odds is where you can still find old-fashioned bibs with polka dots or words like “Little Angel”. You can find white infant shoes so tiny King James could hold a dozen pairs with one hand and still have fingers to spare. There are lace doilies and little rubber duckies and white school uniform shirts that lure traffic every August before the start of the new term.
If the merchandise and the merchandising are marvels that turn back the hands of time the building that houses this treasure is an even greater marvel.
According to historian and photographer Ronald Lightbourn, author of Reminiscing (Versions 1 and II) it is one of the lesser known architectural wonders of the street. Carved of a limestone ridge about 15 feet high that ran along the area between Charlotte Street and Frederick Street, the storefront is part of a larger block of buildings that included the old Windsor Hotel. Inside was a bar frequented by the likes of Errol Flynn who never wasted an opportunity to raise a fuss and a fist. The name: Baha mar bar.
That same limestone was quarried, according to Lightbourn, to build the major public buildings and Coin of the Realm. Artistic stone work is regaining its rightful place in The Bahamas where respect for the skillful treatment of natural limestone and coral is seeping back into design and an awareness of the beauty of the architectural lines of shops like Fendi and the warehouse style roofing profile so prominent from the harbour continue to bolster belief in revitalization.
But while we wait, we can always enjoy a step back in time to a store that shows no sign of growing up or growing old, probably does not have e-mail, leaves tweeting for birds and will still be the most likely place in Nassau to find what you cannot find anywhere else when it comes to the old-fashioned kind of soft-wear.
The sole aisle in the centre, barely wide enough for two people to pass without one saying, “Excuse me, so sorry,” is flanked by cabinets, large plastic containers, some cracked and mended with tape, with shelves and a world of retail wonder. A Baker & Sons – worth a trip downtown and down memory lane.