February 23-March 1, 2006
cover storyWilensky's Hardware & Locks
Photo By: Michael koehler
Stepping into Wilensky's Hardware & Locks (1111-1113 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-468-4819) is a bit like falling into a time warp. The neighborhood's ever-evolving present seems somehow worn into the store's battered plank flooring and reflected from the darkened tin ceiling. As you enter the cluttershovels create an obstacle course by the door and "FOR RENT" signs are shuffled throughout sheets of sandpaper in various grit sizesemployee Jack Whitmire is sure to return your greeting with a jovial, "I'm fantastic but I've learned to live with it."
Bernie Wilensky, former proprietor and father of current owner, Barry Wilensky, has made the Bella Vista shop his office for most of his 87 years. Despite his "retirement" nearly 20 years ago, he can regularly be found behind the counter dispensing keys and expertise. It's a living, after all.
Bernie's father, born in South Philly in 1895, purchased the little store from his brother-in-law in 1919. Bernie remembers the days when they'd mix paint from linseed oil, turpentine and white lead, and roll 250 gallon tanks of gasoline onto the sidewalk to fill thirsty Model Ts.
He claims the store has everything. He may well be right. Big tenpenny nails can be found next to smiley-face key blanks. In the tradition of all fine hardware stores, you may not be able to find it, but the Wilenskys or Whitmire certainly can.
Have Home Depots and megastores hurt business? "It's the best thing that ever happened to us," says the elder Wilensky. "They send us six to 10 customers a day." It seems as though folks who actually need some know-how with their hardware always end up at Wilensky's. While there may be a certain McDonald's-like comfort in walking into the same paint aisle in a Philly or Kalamazoo Depot, the old neighborhood stores know the needs of their community and stock accordingly.
Besides, “You’ll get advice whether you ask for it or not,” says Wilensky. After all, he’s “learned a few things in his 80-odd years” and he’s not afraid to share them. Happily, the store was packed and the phone was ringing when I paid for my ice melt and re-entered the 21st century.