Squirrel Hill retail is a story of change and promise
They say that Squirrel Hill is “cradle to grave,” a place so complete one never has to leave. Maybe it is, but since Squirrel Hill emerged as a retail and merchant market area nearly 100 years ago, the tide of trade has changed. Whereas kosher butchers and bakeries once lined Murray Avenue, only a single such shop remains. But few patrons are offering panegyrics. The avenue’s molt has revealed a new merchant class, one bolstered by local benefactors and committed to a bright future.
“Right from the beginning, Squirrel Hill was a highly Jewish business center,” said Michael Ehrmann, president of the Squirrel Hill Historical Society. “From day one, in the first listings of stores, there are Jewish names.”
Retailers such as the Squirrel Hill grocers Herman H. Studt & Sons.; George Etzel, dealer in high grade meats, poultry, eggs, oysters and fish; and F.W. Hallers Ice Cream store, are three that caught Ehrmann’s eye. Those sellers operated adjacent shops located between 5872 and 5878 Northumberland St. near Shady Avenue, and each advertised in The Jewish Criterion as early as 1912.
The following decade saw an influx of Eastern European Jews arriving from Oakland and the nearby Hill District. Demographic adaptation resulted in changes among retailers.
“As Squirrel Hill became a Jewish residential neighborhood, it’s our perception that until very recently the percentage of Jewish businesses overwhelmingly exceeded the percentage of Jewish residences,” said Ehrmann, who estimated that at points, “up to 70 percent” of Squirrel Hill businesses were owned by Jews.
Kosher bakeries, butcher shops and clothiers once lined Murray Avenue, recalled Marianne Silberman, 86.
“The street was fantastic — well, there were five bakeries between Phillips and Hobart on Murray,” she said. “There were at least eight butcher shops, maybe 10 in that same area. There were three produce stores, and that’s a small two-block area.
“The activity on that street especially before holidays was unbelievable,” added Silberman. “There were so many people; there was no parking so they double parked.”
Silberman’s familiarity with the avenue’s merchant life stemmed from her own participation.
“My father, [Siegmund Silberberg], bought Rothschild’s pastry shop in 1943, and around 1945 changed the name to Silberberg’s Bakery.”
The bakery, which was located at 2111-2113 Murray Ave., was run by the family until its liquidation shortly before Passover in 1981.
Silberman also remembered butchers who “had the slaughtered chickens in their windows. … Jewish people who lived in small towns around Pittsburgh and West Virginia would come in on Sundays and do their shopping for themselves, and if there were six or eight people in that town they would do the shopping for them too.”
“It was probably better [for butchers] back then,” observed Saul Markovic, owner of present-day business Murray Avenue Kosher, located at 1916 Murray Ave. “A lot more people were keeping kosher, or eating kosher in the house.
“There were more people outside of Pittsburgh eating kosher,” continued Markovic. “There used to be people living in Johnstown, Donora, Altoona — all these cities with little shuls and now nobody’s there anymore.”
Silberman understands the decreasing demand for products once favored in years’ past.
“The younger generation will buy Thomas bagels and think they’re wonderful,” she said. “Years ago, you had all these bakeries making things from scratch and making them fresh, and it’s totally a different world. Today you have supermarkets selling challah. On Thursdays and Fridays, we would sell an enormous amount of challah; it was just a different way of Jewish life than it is today.”
Nowadays, there are “less Jewish merchants than there used to be,” said Ehrmann. “Some people say that first Shadyside and then the Waterfront killed the merchants.”
Another possibility: “For a lot of old Jewish families they got to a point where their children had a lot of choices,” said Ehrmann. “At the beginning of the 20th century this is where Jews could prosper, but by the end of the 20th century more professions opened up.”
“There’s been a transformation that in some respects is sad to see and in other respects opens the door for new retail and new businesses,” noted Norman Childs, owner of Eyetique, whose Squirrel Hill branch dates back to 1979. “When I opened my location it was pretty much the only storeroom available back then in Squirrel Hill.”
Placing his shop on lower Murray Avenue, away from the “hub of Squirrel Hill,” was great, said Childs. “We were off the beaten path and were more of a destination location.”
For customers, that meant parking spots were easier to come by than on Forbes Avenue. And for Childs, costs on Murray Avenue were more favorable than on Forbes.
“When I started out it was a major factor for me,” he said. “But if I were to open a business today, I would have a lot more options than I did 37 years ago.”
Whether it is at the Waterfront, in malls or other business districts, merchants can exit and exist outside of Squirrel Hill.
“I think that’s one of the reasons you see different retail than you did [back] then,” said Childs.
“Retail has changed,” affirmed Joel Sigal, the owner since 1985 of Littles Shoes at 5850 Forbes Ave. Both in Squirrel Hill and outside of it, “all retail has changed in the whole country. … People are buying on the Internet as opposed to going into stores. The shopping patterns have changed very dramatically.”
Natalie Kovacic, coordinator for Uncover Squirrel Hill, which aims to develop connections between business owners and the community in the Squirrel Hill Business District, agreed.
“We’re up against online sales and other business districts,” she said.
In recent months, Kovacic has partnered with Stuart Rattner of S&T Bank, located at 6306 Forbes Ave., to promote local retailers.
“As a chamber of commerce, our goal is to bring people into Squirrel Hill,” said Rattner, treasurer of Uncover Squirrel Hill.
Kovacic said that the district has “a lot to offer that other business districts and online sellers can’t offer.”
She, Rattner and other retailers pointed to Kidz & Company, a children’s clothing store owned by Paul Kenney and located at 5871 Forbes Ave. to prove their point, noting that Squirrel Hill has a history that engenders an emotional connection with its residents. Kenney opened Kidz & Company five years ago partly because he remembered Newman’s, a children’s clothing store that operated on Forbes Avenue for more than 50 years.
“I remember my grandma dragging me to go shopping there,” said Kenney. “That was the place to go for a nice outfit or special clothing.
“I wanted to bring that back,” he added. “It wasn’t only to make me a living, but also because it is something that people wanted, and I think that’s been the case.”
Recently, Kenney moved Kidz & Company down Forbes Avenue into a larger storefront. The relocation was encouraging to fellow retailers.
“When I look at folks like Kidz & Company who moved from their small space from the east of me to the west of me into a larger space, that was certainly a good sign,” said Dan Iddings, who opened Classic Lines Bookstore, at 5825 Forbes Ave., in October 2014. “If he weren’t doing well and didn’t think that this was the neighborhood to be in then he wouldn’t have done that.”
Whether in clothes or books, the future of small business in Squirrel Hill is promising, said Iddings. “With each new retail establishment that moves in, it just makes it a stronger shopping area overall.”
Aiding those efforts are eateries, which have undergone a prolific transformation.
“I’ve seen more changes in restaurants in the past eight years than in the previous 30 years,” said Childs.
“Now Squirrel Hill has become an eating place more than anything else — most of the street is restaurants, coffee shops, pizza stores,” echoed Markovic.
Norraset Nareedokmai, owner of Bangkok Balcony at 5846 Forbes Ave. and Silk Elephant at 1712 Murray Ave., said that the neighborhood has been welcoming to the eclectic mix of eateries.
“Squirrel Hill is a very good community,” said Nareedokmai. “We have a very good relationship with most of our customers; we see them, we know them.”
Nareedokmai has owned Bangkok Balcony since 2001 and Silk Elephant since 2004. During that span, he has watched a shift in businesses. Development at the Waterfront caused many retailers — such as Lintons, a women’s clothing store — to leave Squirrel Hill and several new restaurants to enter, the restaurateur explained.
But Nareedokmai is not bothered by the increase in restaurants.
“It is good for people to offer a variety of different things [and] to give people more choices to dine,” he said.
What he would like to see, though, is more retail.
“It would give people more of a reason to come out and walk around,” he said. And walking is the lynchpin to Squirrel Hill’s businesses.
When it comes to restaurants, people don’t mind parking and walking a little bit, said Nareedokmai. “Some people walk from their houses, and 80 percent of our customers live within three miles.” But when it comes to shopping, people are not as forgiving. It is more cumbersome to carry bags full of clothes or goods and walk some distance to a car.
Sigal, of Littles Shoes, said he is optimistic about the area’s future.
“In my opinion, Squirrel Hill is the best community in the city,” he said. “We have young people moving back, so the houses are selling really well, and that will keep the business community going well.”
“I think Squirrel Hill will always be a great community,” agreed Childs.
By way of explaining the neighborhood’s uniqueness, Marianne Lien, executive director of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, noted that other commercial centers, such as in Shadyside, have more franchisees than does Squirrel Hill.
“We don’t have many, other than Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks,” said Lien. “We rejected that, because we believe that the immigrant population is a big part of the character of Squirrel Hill and you see that reflected in the storefronts here. And to me that’s some of the beauty of who we are — we get to see that physically played out in the storefronts.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.