Jack Luskin goes to his grave, at 89, trailed by a catchphrase that utterly misses the real man. “The cheapest guy in town,” he called himself in countless advertisements. This was a misnomer, strictly for advertising purposes. The guy was actually an easy touch, and the most charitable of men.
Also, one of the most successful.
The last time I saw him, a couple of years ago, he was getting inducted into the Baltimore City College Hall of Fame. He wowed the kids gathered that morning in City’s auditorium.
He told them stories about his poor Russian-immigrant parents and their little grocery store, about his days at City, and about his time in the U.S. Army – all leading up to creating a business that ultimately saw him open 56 electronics and home appliance stores across 11 states.
“City College made me,” he told the kids. They roared their approval at that line.
The message was clear: He knew that a lot of these kids came from humble backgrounds, and he understood their anxieties, wondering each day if they’ll ever make it out there in the tough world.
Well, Luskin was telling them, if I made it – so can you.
That’s why the kids roared their approval – they want so much to believe they’ve got a chance, in a world that tells them in so many ways that they don’t.
But for half a century, Luskin and his stores beat the odds. Many of us remember his first store, down on Park Heights Avenue, not far from the old Uptown Theater. Years ago, you could buy long-playing albums at that first Luskin’s for $2.99 – cheaper than anywhere else.
They probably took a loss on the albums – but it didn’t matter. If you arrived looking for Frank Sinatra’s latest LP, or Elvis Presley’s, you might not leave until you checked out a new TV or a refrigerator or washing machine.
In the post-war years of previously untapped American abundance, so much of the good life was displayed right there at the Luskin’s store.
“The cheapest guy in town,” he started calling himself a few years down the road. Of course, he meant it in terms of pricing. As the Luskin’s stores multiplied, they could keep overhead low – and prices, too.
But nobody should mistake his advertising pitch for personal practice. He spread his money to a variety of charities, including the Baltimore Holocaust Memorial’s haunting sculpture of victims engulfed in flames.
The cheapest guy in town was actually one of the most charitable.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Above image: Screen shot from YouTube of 1991 Luskin’s TV commercial
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