Marmelstein’s Closing Marks End of Era on Fabric Row


Marmelstein's.jpgMarmelstein’s, the longtime Fabric Row icon, closed its doors on Nov. 21.

Fabric Row is one step closer to becoming textile-based in name only.
Outside Marmelstein’s iconic purple storefront on South Fourth Street hangs a large red banner proclaiming, “Retirement Sale Everything ½ Off.”
The store closed on Nov. 21 after 78 years at 760 S. Fourth St.
Perhaps attracted by the sign, perhaps drawn to commune among the bolts and remainders they and their parents and grandparents sifted through over the decades, the small store was crowded with customers before its doors closed for the final time. They rummaged through rows and columns of multicolored patterned fabrics and tassels that adorned the shelves and racks, all embellished with neon tags that read “50 percent off” and “all sales final.”
Judy Buchsbaum has been working in her family’s store since 1982. But, she lamented during a break in the traffic, business never recovered from the Great Recession.
She said her customers have told her more than once that they don’t have any money left to spend on frivolous things; drapes can’t compare to putting a roof over your head or paying for your kids’ tuition.
The Internet diminished her business, too. She said people increasingly came into her store to take pictures of what they liked — and then made their purchases with online retailers instead.
The 59-year-old Buchsbaum, the third and final generation of her family to run the shop, recalled how Fourth Street between Bainbridge and Christian streets “was one fabric store after another.” Not long before her grandparents bought the property in 1937, pushcarts lined the streets of the neighborhood that was one of the cynosures of Jewish life and business in Philadelphia during the 19th and 20th centuries.
But Buchsbaum feels fortunate to be able to retire from the business because of the hard work her family did before her.
That doesn’t mean she will stop working, though. She is the landlord for four buildings on the block. As rents rise in accordance with the area’s increasing popularity, tenants’ demands increase. Eventually, she realized, it was too difficult for her to run both the store and the properties. The Marmelstein’s space will be rented out by a neighboring wig shop dedicated to helping cancer survivors.
She said they may have continued to stay in business for a few more years if the recession didn’t happen, but rather than the expected melancholy, Buchsbaum conveyed enthusiasm for the end of this era.
Although eager to retire, Buchsbaum did not let that deter her from helping her customers during those final days.
From the way she interacted with her customers, it was clear she still cared for them and the store. She pointed them in the right direction for what they were searching for, made sure one customer could carry the bags on her own and schmoozed with them as they shared their own memories of childhood coming to the store.
Suzanne, who did not want to use her last name, came to the store to say farewell. She grew up around the corner on Fifth Street and used to go to Marmelstein’s every week with her mother.
Her mother was good at needlepoint, and would hem dresses by hand or add in zippers she bought from the store.
She looked around the store and remembered every detail of how it used to be — the walls lined with buttons and ribbons of every size and color, generations of Buchsbaum’s relatives, the fabrics draped in the back of the store, the glass cases with gold trim occupied by cording — but now she can’t find a decent dressmaker to fix a hem.
“People stopped doing this kind of needlework,” she explained. “My mother did embroidery and crocheting. I’m still using her afghans — my mother came from a generation that did all that needlework.”
Buchsbaum’s great-aunt Dora, who worked in the store, even made Suzanne’s wedding veil.
“I have such happy memories of this shop, I just can’t begin to tell you, because my mother was always happy in here,” she recalled.
Amy Sweeney shoveled through piles of fabric samples to find the perfect patterns and gather enough squares to amount to the store’s discount.
She works at Electric Factory as a seamstress and also upholsters furniture and creates her own items like purses and wine bags.
She’s sad to see Marmelstein’s go because she said the quality of their fabrics is much better than any department store.
“My entire house, my whole building is all Marmelstein’s fabric on the windows,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to see. These guys have been around forever, they’re an honest business, but look at me, I’m pulling cheap samples because I can’t afford to do $40 a yard or $50 a yard for something. People can’t afford it these days.”
Sweeney said these businesses have declined because people don’t want to take the time to learn how to sew and do things for themselves.
“People don’t have the time or patience to sit there and do the work. It’s sad because that’s why everything’s falling apart,” she added.
Rose Blumenthal, owner of Jack B. Fabrics, has been a friendly rival of Marmelstein’s for 40 years.
She even used to send her own customers to Marmelstein’s for drapery trims and curtain rods.
Three generations of her family work in Jack B., and though Fabric Row is not what it used to be, she wants people to know that it’s not a ghost town.
“A lot of the stores closed that are on the street, but there are still stores here — I don’t want people to think that we don’t still exist,” she emphasized.
She hopes businesses will recover, especially after her own store’s remodeling due to a catastrophic fire there in April 2013.
“I’ve been here a long time — it definitely has changed, but what are you going to do?”she shrugged.
Stanley and Tricia Fleishman have been in the business for decades but are new to Fabric Row. The co-owners of Fleishman’s Fabrics and Supplies moved from Fifth Street to Fabric Row about a year and a half ago to fill a void, but now more stores are closing shop.
“You don’t want to see anybody close up,” Stanley said.
Tricia said Fleishman’s and Marmelstein’s have been friendly competitors for years, and it’s sad for the industry that they’re leaving.
“Fewer Jews are interested in slipcovers,” she joked. “But it’s true. It’s just a transformation of generations and that piece of it didn’t tag along. There’s so much change in the Jewish community. It’s just not the same.”
Stanley said there’s still a lot happening on Fourth Street, it’s more diversified — recently, Little Bird Bakery opened, and The Hungry Pigeon Restaurant is also a new draw — and not just fabrics.
Tricia added that with their closing, “it’s less of a reason for people to come down to Fabric Row.”
“The one thing that is constant is change. So you have to move along with the changes, see what you can do to stay alive and stay in business,” she said. Marmelstein’s is “another piece of history that’s no longer going to be viable.”
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