A Phoenix Called Manayunk

Posted: July 27, 1994

It's trendy and hip and chic - the Delaware Valley's newest "in" spot to dine and browse the expensive boutiques and craft shops.

And when Main Street in Manayunk finally rose from the grave and became a hot spot, Victor Ostroff says, "No one was more amazed than me.

"Who would ever believe that people would come to Manayunk to eat?" he asks with a grin. "Who in their right mind would believe people would come to Manayunk for a night out?"

Ostroff had a bird's eye of what appears to be the most rapid business transformation in city history.

From the windows of the little jewelry shop his great-grandfather opened on Main Street in 1899, he watched a dying two-block business district transformed into a crowd-choked four-block "New Hope on the Schuylkill."

Today, Ostroff's jewelry shop is practically the only pre-Main Street renaissance business left. In a sea of trendiness, I.A. Poland Jewelers stands out as different. It's a store that never changed its appearance, a store selling the same goods to the same customer-base.

Only Poland's Jewelry, a barber shop and luncheonette remain from "old" Main Street.

Ostroff, 40, was born above the store his great-grandfather, Abraham I. Poland, started in 1899. There's a large photo in the shop taken that first year. Almost nothing has changed in 95 years: Same tin ceiling, same showcases, same huge iron safe.

There are now several jewelry stores on Main Street offering pricey one-of- a-kind jewelry. But Ostroff sticks to the basics: Simple lockets, gold chain crucifixes, miraculous medals, pearls, I.D. bracelets, fountain pens, standard wristwatches.

"We do get some after-dinner browsers," says Ostroff, "but we know 75 percent of our customers by name. They're the same neighborhood people we always sold to."

In the good old days of the 1920s, when Manayunk's textile mills were humming, there were five jewelry shops on Main Street. Three stores died and one moved "up the hill" to Ridge Avenue.

Ostroff and his parents survived by living modestly and with a liberal ''buy on the book" policy.

Most people bought on credit. They were given a little notebook. Every time they made a payment, their balance was reduced.

"I can remember going around the neighborhood on Saturdays, making collection," Ostroff says with a smile. "I knock on the doors and collect $2 or $5; a $10 payment was a big deal.

"We sold everything, not just jewelry. Small appliances. Radios. Clocks. Giftware. We worked hard and lived a moderate lifestyle."

Despite a college degree, Ostroff felt close to the family business. He worked in the store as a child, returned in 1978 and was soon running things when his father became ill.

There were times when Ostroff thought of "moving up the hill" into the more active Roxborough business area.

By the 1970s, about 25 percent of stores on Main Street were boarded up. But there was talk of a renaissance.

The renaissance was mostly wishful thinking until 1985-86, when everything came together at once. "The city finally fixed the curbs and sidewalks," Ostroff recalls. "The CoreStates bike race started. We started the Manayunk stroll . . . The historic preservation laws encouraged rehabbing old buildings."

And Ostroff was a leader in promoting and encouraging the changes.

When the boom came, Main Street buildings that sold in the late 1970s for $30,000 were commanding $150,000 and more. "It doesn't bother me, but at one time I could have bought any building I wanted," says the jeweler.

Ostroff's mother, Zelda, who inherited the store from her father, says, ''Manayunk was like a ghost town. Now, I can't believe it when I read in the newspaper 'trendy Manayunk.' The only way most people knew Manayunk was

from getting lost trying to find a shortcut to the Main Line or Chestnut Hill."

She remembers her father resisting all efforts in the 1930s and 1940s to modernize the store with glass and stainless steel. A lack of money and a stubborn desire to maintain the old feel kept the place unchanged.

Ostroff says many Manayunk old-timers are not thrilled with the traffic and mobs of outsiders.

"It's a shame, but nothing stays the same," he says. "Once a business district starts to decline, it usually keeps sliding. You get trash, boarded- up buildings, fires. Manayunk was fortunate. It's clean. It's safe. It's attractive."

comments powered by Disqus