Editor’s note: Travel writer Beth Lennon gets around and that is no lie. The lively roadside maven, known to her fans as “Mod Betty,” scours the East Coast looking for old mom-and-pop shops, delectable dinettes, monuments of midcentury leisure, and other survivors of fading Americana. Lennon shares her nifty vintage finds through her website, Retro Roadmap, with photos, videos, and travel essays. She recently branched out into print with a growing series of off-the-beaten-path regional tour guides. This summer Lennon released her newest installment, “Retro Roadmap Pennsylvania: Mod Betty’s Guide to Philadelphia,” and it is a keeper. Here Lennon gives us a taste of our own hidden city with apéritifs at Sassafras Bar, sweet-and-crispy fastnachts at Haegele’s Bakery, chicken meatballs and gravy at Dad’s Stuffings, and a host of other locally-owned gems that keep “New Philadelphia” fluent in old school charm.
Michael Bixler caught up with Beth Lennon to discuss Trolley Buns, dancing The Wagner Walk, and the survival of authentic, neighborhood shopping experiences in an era of urban retail chains.
Michael Bixler: What got you started in “Retro Roadmapping,” and where were the first places that took your heart when you first began exploring Philadelphia?
Beth Lennon: I have been “Retro Roadmapping” long before I actually coined the phrase! While I was in college studying art history and photography I loved hopping in my car and having the freedom to explore the roadside and discover what was left of the earlier eras that I connected with. I documented the remaining drive-in movie theaters in Massachusetts (where I’m from), but I also would snap photos of old signs, diners, bowling alleys, motels–anything with that Art Deco and Mid-century vibe I really connected with.
Since I’m not from Pennsylvania I learned about Philly’s cool vintage places from the outside in. My husband is a musician, so I was thrilled when he had some gigs at Silk City. I love that authentic vintage diner/rock and roll club combo. When we were dating I took the train from Boston and met him at 30th Street Station and loved its grand train station architecture. My jaw dropped when I first entered Macy’s and saw the atrium, then heard the Wanamaker organ. I felt an immediate connection to all of the families that make their annual pilgrimage to the Christmas light show.
However, once I decided to more methodically research the city to unearth the hidden gems, I found many more, and even recent finds have become forever faves.
MB: Small legacy businesses in Philly have an interesting social dynamic. If you’re from the neighborhood you are treated like family. If you are a stranger (i.e. new to the area or not from the neighborhood) one is often treated somewhat formally and with an air of unspoken skepticism. But by the fourth or fifth visit, its all smiles and small talk like you’ve been shopping there for years.
For instance, I live near Marota Bros, an old school Italian corner grocery in Point Breeze. When I first moved into the neighborhood eight years ago everyone went quiet when I stepped through the door. Now they treat me like their cousin and insist that I’m Italian from Philly and my name is Mark, although I consistently remind them that I am a Michael from the South and 4th generation Irish.
What has your personal experience been while putting the book together?
BL: I definitely had to deal with that I’m “from away” feeling when I was going into many of the mom-and-pop shops while researching. But since I am “Mod Betty of Retro Roadmap” I had to go into these places so I could tell my readers what to expect. While it felt and still feels awkward initially, I actually realized I could use this outsiderness to my benefit. I genuinely say to people “I’ve never been in here before, but I love your vintage sign/interior Can you tell me about it and the business?” This lets the owners know immediately that I am on their side and that I like what they are. And since I’m publicly declaring my “newbie” status, I am then free ask all sorts of questions and they can share their expertise to help educate me.
MB: Not trying to force you to play favorites, but what is the one must-visit place in your book that embodies “Old Philadelphia?”
BL: So hard to choose! Sadly, the first place that comes to mind would be Fiorella’s Sausages in South Philly. They’ve been “temporarily” closed since the beginning of the year, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that they will reopen. So, I will instead choose Haegele’s Bakery in Mayfair. I learned about this family owned and operated bakery because of the lines that go out the door on Fastnacht Day, but I love the place any day of the week. They have such a love for what they are doing and a connection to the community. They take pride in keeping their vintage decor neat and clean and even make old fashioned regional recipes like Trolley Buns and Washington Cake, desserts they used to serve that at the Horn & Hardart automats!
MB: I’ve been following you on Instagram for a few years and see you really get around! You have a book about New Jersey and another about Delaware currently in the works. Tell me a little about your background and if you have been able to turn your passion into a full-time job.
BL: I need to clear up something right away: I do have the passion, and I am working on turning it into a full-time job (aka making money), but for now it is something that comes from my own heart–and my own pocketbook! One of the reasons I started self-publishing my “Roadbooks” of places that I write about on RetroRoadmap.com is to make money so I am able to continue sharing these hidden places and expand to other states.
I realized if I waited until I was retired to devote my time entirely to this project there would be barely any old places left to write about. So I took the leap, and a financial security hit, and started working on it full-time about a year ago. I figure if I can get the word out to people sooner then more places might stay open instead of closing, and that is important. And if people want to visit these cool, old places they can help themselves, and the project, by buying my books, downloads, merchandise so I can continue covering the U.S.
My first book was for the state of Delaware, which was a good beta test because it is such a small state. I thought I would then do one book for each state. But in researching Pennsylvania I realized that one book would be 1,000 pages long and take me years to write since there are many places I want to share with readers. So I embraced the flexibility of self-publishing and decided to put out smaller books for each region. That is why my next books were the Philadelphia suburbs (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery Counties) and Philadelphia the city. I am working on a New Jersey book now, but it may end up being three books!
With so many old school places closing every year I truly feel a sense of urgency to get the word out. The sooner people can get to these places, the sooner they can experience how awesome they are, and maybe they’ll stay open for another season.
As far as me getting around, my fave thing to do is travel, whether flying someplace or just getting in the car and taking an unexplored road out to Berks County. I try to turn any opportunity to go somewhere into a Retro Roadmap adventure! The places I research and write about are the places I’d want to visit when I’m traveling anyways so it comes naturally. My musician husband, Cliff Hillis, tours solo and with bands, so when I am able to tag along with him I’ll do that.
Now that I’ve started working on regional books it forces me to stick with one area and dive deep, instead of popping around from state to state. Writing for a printed book is much different than sharing content online, so the books are keeping me more regionally focused than I had been before.
MB: Neighborhoods are seeing family-owned businesses close more and more these days, whether it be from real estate pressures, online shopping, or the veritable invasion of Wawa and Target stores. Then there is simply not having anyone to pass the business down to. It is a real loss to the community when these places close as they have often served as neighborhood anchors for decades. These are places for local gossip, for celebrating life events, for neighborly advice, and for genuine, in-person (i.e. offline) human connection. In your interactions and research for the book, what is the overall mood at the butchers, delis, bakeries, and the more antiquated places like corner hardware stores and pharmacies? What are some out your favorite places that have closed over the years?
BL: The mood varies depending on the situation with each business, but a lot of it has to do with what I equate to “end of life” issues.
If there’s a next generation that is interested in keeping the business open, that is a great sign. And if the business owns their real estate, that is also security that it may continue to go on.
A number of the places I have visited cite the changing of the times. That the generations that are coming after them don’t want to work as hard or as long, that they can make a lot more money doing other things than running a bakery, pharmacy, or restaurant. Their parents get that, and I get that too. When I hear that I realize that a place may die of “natural causes.” Once the current generation is gone, it may very well close.
What I don’t like is when businesses are doing fine, but outside forces “kill” the business through real estate deals, eminent domain issues, and even roadwork rerouting people away from the old routes, which can have a devastating effect on a legacy business.
Once these places are gone, they’re gone for good. It’s a loss for all of us and for future generations. Right now you can still go to a place and have that first-hand experience of shopping in a 5 & 10 or getting food from ovens that have been working for decades–food that people used to eat generations ago. Younger generations that only know of the chains and shopping online. They won’t know what this is like once these places close.
I often say when I walk into a place that has that “stepped back in time” feeling, that it really is like an archeological discovery, but the place is still alive. Or like discovering a real live dinosaur. It isn’t from these times, but it is alive still and somehow surviving despite how much the outside world has changed. I want to make sure I am doing what I can to keep these dinos alive!
MB: Did you discover anything surprising, interesting, or particularly unusual about Philly while you were researching for your book?
BL: One thing I discovered, and I am somewhat obsessed about now, is what I refer to as “Philly – The Land of a Thousand Dances.” There are all these intricate dances that a generation of folks who grew up listening to Jerry Blavat and watching (and being on) American Bandstand only they know. If you go out to see The Geator and he plays a certain song, suddenly a bunch of people will get up and do a line dance that was created back in the early 1960s for that specific song. One thing I love about this too is that they have dances that were named after the places they used to dance–The Wagner Walk, Chez Vous, etc. I actually take lessons in Norristown from some ladies who used to dance these dances as teens and it’s fun! I also realize that these are like the lost tribal dances of our culture. Once this generation dies out the dances disappear forever if no one else learns them.
MB: I imaging you’ve come across a number of characters and crackups in your comings and goings. Any particular place stand out as having that classic Philly charm?
BL: If I had one to pick I’d probably give the nod to Rich Commoroto of Dad’s Stuffings at Ritner and Bancroft. I almost didn’t go into the place because of the stucco exterior. But once I stepped inside and saw the decades of family snapshots papering the walls I knew I was in for something special. I initially had no idea what I could get at Dad’s. “Do they make hoagies? Is it all to-go?” So I said to Rich, “I’ve never been here!” He immediately told me the family history of the place, how their stuffings got so popular, and how they branched out into other prepared foods. He introduced me to the other people working there and he knew the name of everyone who walked through the door. I left with a grocery bag heavy with things he suggested, and we loved everything. I also left there with a happy heart knowing that this place exists and that as soon as I write about it more people will know to go in too and have an authentic experience that you just don’t get when you shop at any regular grocery store.
Join travel writer Beth Lennon and the Young Friends of the Preservation Alliance on Thursday, September 13 at Philadelphia Distilling for the book launch party of Retro Roadmap Pennsylvania: Mod Betty’s Guide to Philadelphia. See event details HERE.
Pick up a copy of Mod Betty’s Guide to Philadelphia online at Retroroadmap.com or at local retailers like the museum shop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.