Philadelphia’s Fabric Row on 4th Street contains nearly all of the city’s fabric shops in one concentrated stretch between Bainbridge and Catharine Streets. At its peak, from the 1930s to the 1960s, the famed textile corridor supported about 30 fabric dealers. Today only ten remain. The shops still in business have been family-owned for two, three, and even four generations. But many stores have closed for lack of a successor, declining health, and increasing competition from low-cost wholesalers and Internet retailers. However, the remaining scope of goods and services is impressive enough and worth hours of my time this spring as I set out to report this story. Textiles of every conceivable color, pattern, and weight still flank and fill the inside of storefront windows. Rhinestone trim sold by the foot, threads, buttons, zippers, and fancy tassels glimmer in glass cases. Suit and dress tailoring and alteration services still do considerable business all the while a new generation of restaurants and specialty stores have moved in, including the recently opened Kawaii Kitty Cafe and the well-curated and popular Paradigm Gallery and Studio, giving the street nighttime life for the first time in a half-century.
A Stitch Above The Rest
David Auspitz, former owner of Famous Fourth Street Delicatessen, is regarded by many as the de facto “Mayor of 4th Street.” Over breakfast at the Jewish deli his family made a national name, Auspitz enthusiastically shares stories of the old days, while lauding the new merchants who are energizing the street. Auspitz’s father opened a grocery store and deli at the corner of 4th of Bainbridge Streets in 1923 to cater to the immigrant and second generation Jews who lived, worked, and shopped in the neighborhood. In the 1950s, his father, Sam, added table service and the Famous 4th Street Deli quickly became the bustling restaurant that we know today.
With its origin in the late 19th century’s crowded 4th Street shopping district, with its dozens of pushcarts, fabric dealers took hold here, surpassing the concentration of schmatta men two miles north, at 4th and Girard. According to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, pushcart or curbside licenses were available for purchase from City Hall in the 1920s for $25. Peddlers who could not afford a license had the option to rent a cart for a quarter a day from businessmen who capitalized on the law, much like today’s taxi medallions. Before pushcarts were outlawed on 4th Street in the 1950s, forcing merchants and their wares inside, curbside pushcarts operated much like the outdoor produce tables in the Italian Market. “Some of these carts sold fabric, but others sold bulk food, like produce, and piles of grains, beans and spices,” says Auspitz.
The proposed Crosstown Expressway, planned in the 1960s, would have destroyed South and Bainbridge Streets with a beltway loop connecting I-76 and I-95. As plans for the project gained momentum, many fabric shops fled 4th Street fearing that the expressway would cut off their livelihood if they remained south of the highway. Several moved into a purpose-built low-slung fabric market at 4th and Spring Garden Streets that currently houses a Dollar Store. Most business did not survive the move, due in part to residential displacement from Urban Renewal happening at the time blocks away on Callowhill Street and the lack of robust walk-in foot traffic found in South Philly.
Bill Arrowood, assistant director of the South Street Headhouse District, is an enthusiastic proponent of 4th Street’s fabric store survival. “There is still a strong and dedicated clientele that shop here and you can see that a lot of the business is seasonal like proms and weddings. The niche is still there.” Arrowood maintains that Fabric Row is still the only place in Philadelphia, and even the region, to source such a large variety of fabrics and trimmings in one place.
“You might think that fabric stores are passé but they’re really not,” Auspitz adds. “There are still many customers who source here, like set and clothing designers, art students and teachers, staging companies and commercial clients like hotels, schools, restaurants and even cruise ships.”
Arrowood listens in as Auspitz describes one of his dream ideas for the Row: to open up the second floors of extant fabric stores to young designers just coming out of design school to create their first clothing lines.
However, as technology and consumer demand streamlines the cost and convenience of shopping, Fabric Row remains a corridor in transition. Many consumers now opt to purchase fabrics online or at big box stores like Target and low-end discount retailer Jo-Mar.
In previous generations, making clothes at home was once the norm, not the exception, in order to save money. “Back in the day the Amish who sell at the Reading Terminal would make a stop down here on the way home to buy fabrics to make their own clothing,” says Auspitz. Customers once flooded Fabric Row for everything from linens to wools to special cotton for undergarments in addition to material for their home like curtains, upholstery, and bedding.
Today, the rush and buzz of textile sales is largely absent on 4th Street. Owners decline to share their monthly sales numbers and it is hard to tell whether business is up or down. However, tradition, loyalty, and a high demand for quality and niche fabrics persists. “There is a strong and dedicated clientele here that are loyal to the owners and continue to buy even after they have moved out of Philly,” says Auspitz.
Tailored For The Next Generation
The South Street Headhouse District’s irregular boundaries stretch roughly east to west, from Front to 11th Street on South, and jog straight down 4th Street along Fabric Row to Catharine Street. Including Fabric Row under SSHD’s umbrella of services has been key for revitalizing and raising the profile of the corridor. In late 2015, South 4th Street underwent major streetscape renovations. Along with general clean up and sidewalk landscaping, workers installed 12 LED light poles and 38 pedestrian lights between Lombard and Christian Streets, enticing retailers and restaurants to stay open later. This year’s South Street Spring Festival, the fourth annual, attracted an estimated 50,000 visitors; SSHD-sponsored Fourth Friday on Fabric Row, when shops stay open after usual business hours for customers to shop and dine, has brought in a substantial crowd.
“There is no neighborhood in Philly that offers this many locally-owned, independent, and culturally diverse shops,” says Arrowood. Auspitz adds that the new businesses moving onto 4th Street have that same independent-owner heart as their the fabric merchant predecessors. “We now have a wonderful mix of old and new energy.”
The continued decline of family owned fabric shops is inevitable, that is a material fact. Eventually Fabric Row may indeed become just “Fabric Block” with only a small handful of textile stores still holding on. For now, the blend of old and new businesses makes for a vibrant commercial corridor with a history still firmly rooted in place with many new stories yet to unfold. Here are profiles of only some of the merchants along South 4th Street.
Paul’s Draperies | 737 South 4th Street
If you look up and to the right when walking into Harold Paul’s drapery shop you will see a tea-colored wedding portrait of his parents taken in 1919. “They are wearing clothes that they really couldn’t afford back then, and resorted to rent the formal attire from the photographer himself.”
Paul is a second generation fabric shop owner, married to his wife, Sylvia, “my true love and the most important VIP in store” for 68 years. Paul’s father started with a pushcart 76 years ago, the origin of many original fabric shops on 4th Street that eventually moved their business to a storefront when they could afford to buy or rent. His family lived above the storefront when he was younger. The second floor is now devoted to the store’s workshop.
“The shops were really busy back then and many stayed open until nine at night or later,” says Paul. Merchant neighbors became close friends and socialized after closing up for the day. Saturday nights were festive and everyone would take turns hosting dinner parties. Everyone brought cooked food to share and stayed to play cards.
Paul is a drapery specialist. He sells materials and fabricates custom draperies for residential and commercial use. There are no sequins or fancy notions to be found here. “Restaurants, office buildings, schools, hotels and even the many windows on cruise ships need their materials to be flameproof and also washable,” says Paul.
Regarding the transition of Fabric Row, Paul acknowledges change is afoot. “You can’t really depend on the walk-in trade anymore,” he explains. “There is a lot less traffic with fewer fabric stores.” However, business is good at Paul’s Draperies. Paul beams with pride as he shows the “thank you” letter he received from the crew of the latest Rocky movie, Creed, filmed in Philadelphia in 2014. Paul was contracted by the designers to make the draperies for the movie’s sets. He has also made draperies for Woody Allen films that were shot in Boston and Baltimore.
His inventory remains focused on selling drapery materials. Prices start at around $5 per yard, but can easily exceed $150 per yard and more for woven materials. Silks start at about $30 per yard. Recently a customer needed draperies to match an antique bed he acquired in England. “High-end materials like that order” go for up to $250 per yard wholesale, with a 50-yard minimum (not including about $1,000 for shipping).
B. Wilk Fabrics | 801 South 4th Street
Michelle and Bill Burson own and run B. Will Fabrics. The shop was founded by Michelle’s father, Bernard Will, 61 years ago. The couple sells draperies and upholstery fabrics while also offering an onsite decorating service. “Some of our biggest customers are party and wedding planners, hotel chains, and new home and condo developers to stage their models,” says Michelle.
Fleishman’s Fabrics and Supplies | 749 South 4th Street
Fleishman’s is a go-to spot for material, embellishments, and related clothing supplies. It’s also a popular shop with crafters, teachers, and art students. It is one of the few stores left that dedicates an entire room to menswear fabric for suits. The shop was founded 90 years ago by Stanley Fleishman’s father who opened it as a men’s fabric wholesaler. Stanley and his wife Tricia run the store alongside their son Joshua and loyal, longtime staff.
The spectacle of color greets the customer as she walks the aisles brimming floor to ceiling with material and trimmings. Fleishman’s also sells supplies to dry cleaning stores like hangers, plastic wrap, and tickets–basically everything they need to operated their business. With overseas competition for those types of inexpensive bulk goods, the business has shifted more toward supplying fabric to bridal shops and designers at every level. Trish Fleishman talks about the changing shape of textile retailing and how the economy affects her family business. “About twenty years ago I recognized a trend in more hand-made accessories like belts, jewelry, and handbags. Call it the Etsy effect. I started slowly introducing more items to sell to crafters like studs and spikes, leather pieces, and pocketbook hardware. This helped the store stay in business during some leaner years.”
Maxie’s Daughter | 724 South 4th Street
The colorful mural depicting fabric sellers on the corner of 4th and Monroe beckons the curious shopper to step inside Maxie’s Daughter. Owned by the Trobman family, the store carries a full line of bridal, dress, drapery, and upholstery fabrics. Stopping in one sunny day, I found an employee hand sewing a bolster pillow made from orange wool fabric in the front of the store by the window. A measuring graph machine, a staple in the business, sits prominently in the front of the shop. There is a cutting table in the rear and plenty of bolts of fabric to choose from as you slink down the narrow aisles.
Jack B. Fabrics | 748 South 4th Street
Sherie Abrams’ parents, Jack and Rose Blumental, founded Jack B. Fabrics 30 years ago. Today, Abrams works in the shop alongside her mother Rose and her daughter Jamie in one of the brightest and most organized shops on the Row, rebuilt after a fire in 2013.
“We sell everything, from ‘dress to drape’,” says Abrams. Along with fabrics the store carries thread, zippers, elastics, spandex for bathing suits, velcro, and upholstery plastics for protective slip covers for couches and chairs a la 1970.
The shop was busy one recent Monday afternoon with customers buying drapery fabric and young women shopping for prom gown embellishments. Abrams explained that some teenagers might order a gown from overseas, but when it arrives they discover that it’s too small. Sizing in others countries can vary with U.S. sizes and teenagers often stop by desperate to salvage their purchase and make it work with more materials.
Much of the fabric business is predictably seasonal. The late winter and spring season are devoted almost entirely to bridal and prom materials at Jack B.’s. Abrams’ suppliers tell her that Philadelphia is one of the biggest cities for custom-made prom dresses and gowns. Some teens and and their mothers start shopping for materials as early as January. Summer brings demands for outdoor cushions and the fall and winter holidays are busy with customers looking to redecorate for company with fresh upholstery, draperies, and table cloths.
When the Abrams’ store caught fire three years ago, in a blaze that claimed the life of Philadelphia fire captain Michael Goodwin and devastated other nearby businesses, the Abramses had to consider whether to stay open. With a strong resolve to move forward, the Abramses rebuilt and moved back into their family’s original location. The business moved across the street for a year and half while the store was remodeled. Their temporary home was the former location of Sherie’s grandfather’s shop, the well-known Silk Leader. According to Abrams, her grandfather’s store was so jammed packed with bolts of fabrics that customers could not enter. “He would take the orders out on the sidewalk then go inside and dig it out.” So full of fabric was his shop in the 1930s that he expanded his business with a pushcart in the Italian Market to handle the overflow demand. He operated the cart until 1985 and sold full bolts of fabric, not just remnants.
Oxymoron | 750 South 4th Street
Monica Monique Thompson is a fashion designer who studied at the Philadelphia Art Institute, and her clothing boutique, Oxymoron, is one of the newest independently owned shops to open on Fabric Row. Thompson sells her own designs for women’s and men’s ready-to-wear apparel. She also offers custom clothing services. Her shop acts as a collective of sorts, selling the wares of a handful of other designers. But why the animal heads in the window? “When I had a grand opening, I put the animal heads on the mannequins and it attracted a lot of attention. Now I can’t remove them because I am remembered as ‘the shop with the animal heads,’ says Thompson with a laugh.
Bus Stop | 727 South 4th Street
Elena Brennan, a shoe designer by trade, set up her fashionable shoe store nine years ago back when family owned fabric shops dominated the street and new businesses were just beginning to filter in. “I saw that it had a lot of potential, with both old and new stores, but I still wondered if they would embrace me. They welcomed me with open arms,” says Brennan. “It has been really interesting how the street has evolved with new energy.”
Brennan represents her fellow merchants on 4th Street as the president of South Street Headhouse District. She worked closely with staff and officers on the recent lighting and streetscape improvements and hopes to bring new business into the district while keeping the merchants happy.
Hairs 2 U Wig Bank | 760 South 4th Street
Hairs 2 U Wig Bank is both a high-end wig boutique and a 501c non-profit that provides high quality wigs to women and children with illnesses and treatment-related hair loss. The organization recently moved into the storefront space long occupied by Marmelstein’s, a family-owned fabric shop that opened in 1919 and closed earlier this year. Bolts of material left over from Marmelstein’s remain in the back of the shop. The Wig Bank’s offerings run the spectrum from bright, playful synthetic wigs, carefully-styled human hair wigs, and a host of alternative hair coverings.
Philly PACK | 729 South 4th Street
Philly PACK, a performance art center for kids, has been on Fabric Row since 2013. Programming at the popular children’s musical theater and dance company includes ballet, tap, jazz, and hip-hop classes. Students enrolled at Philly PACK recently performed “The Secret Garden” in front of a 600-member audience in the Levitt Theater at the Gershman Y. Says owner Jessica Noel of their Fabric Row location, “I think it’s the perfect spot with a very creative and artistic community.”
Hungry Pigeon | 743 South 4th Street
Hungry Pigeon partners and head chefs Scott Schroeder and Pat O’Malley chose the corner of 4th and Fitzwater for both its pronounced street appeal and inclusion in the tight-knit storefront neighborhood along 4th Street. “We wanted to be engulfed in a real community,” says Schroeder. “We saw potential in Fabric Row as a commercial corridor.”
Moving a restaurant into a former fabric store had its challenges. “When we got here the space was used as fabric shops over the years, so it was narrow and felt all closed up,” Schroeder explains. “We opened it up as wide as we could to let in the natural light from the windows and revealed the brick walls and wood floors.” Hungry Pigeon has been busy since opening in January. Schroeder and O’Malley say they have focused much of their efforts on illuminating their corner of the street and attract a dinner and cocktail crowd after dark. Indeed, with more people walking around Fabric Row after dusk the neighborhood is beginning to stir with activity after dark. “It feels more like what we hoped for,” says Schroeder. “A real neighborhood with a lot of different types of people. Everyone from doctors to artists to young families.”
PUSHCARTS AND PLACEMAKERS
Spend any time with local architect, historian, activist, and author Joel Spivak and you may conclude that he is the most interesting man in the city. The former owner of Rocketships & Accessories at 623-625 South Street has boundless energy and a passion for the city’s history, especially when it comes to historic preservation, vintage trolleys, and old Philadelphia hot dog stands.
One of Spivak’s projects is curating a rotating display of Philadelphia artifacts and documents in a storefront window at 703 South 4th Street. Known for vintage typewriters filling the storefront’s windows on one side, the property owner (and Spivak’s friend) gladly gives him unlimited curatorial authority over the window to share his love of local Philadelphia history and how it relates to Fabric Row.
Spivak’s grandparents were Philadelphia Jewish immigrants thus he feels a strong connection to the Fabric Row. He even owns one of the last real pushcarts, which is on display in the shop window of Maxie’s Daughter. “This cart is from the late 19th century and was made in Philly,” says Spivak. The cart was used on either 4th Street, one of the other open air curbside markets on South 7th Street, or Marshall Street near 5th and Girard. “I know of only three Philadelphia pushcarts that still exist,” says Spivak. One sits out front of Maxie’s Daughter and another is placed in the store’s window. The other is a pushcart used by early 20th century wholesale produce distributor Michael Levin that is on display at the Independence Seaport Museum.
Michelle Winitsky Palmer is preserving memories of her father Louis Winitsky fabric shop at 724 South 4th Street, where she and her family lived until she was four. Her current Fabric Row project, “Philadelphia’s Fabric Row: The Pushcart Years 1905-1955,” opens on June 23 at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent. “The exhibit shows how different world events affected 4th Street,” says Palmer. “I’m including many materials and photos from old family archives.”
Pushcarts varied in size and uses. Most were three-by-four feet with wheels and some were used to wheel down to the docks on the Delaware River to pick up produce to sell in the Italian Market. “The pushcarts basically sold all types of “dry goods,” says Palmer. “About half of the carts sold produce and other food such as canned goods. The other half sold curtains, notions and trims, and fabric remnants.”
Palmer also met with merchants in 1997 and 1998 capturing oral histories of 4th Street, some of which is available at her online museum dedicated to the history of Fabric Row.
Palmer’s father, along with his partners Phil Morgenstern and Max Rapoport, were “jobbers,” or wholesalers, who operated both Winitsky & Company, a retail store, and Win-Tex Fabrics, a wholesale shop. With the two businesses, Michelle says that “They were able to sell to everyone, the household customer and also bigger customers such as decorators.”