February 23-March 1, 2006
cover storyMonarch Hardware
Photo By: Michael koehler
"You can spend thousands of dollars on new fixtures," says Allen Presser, when you ask him for a tip on home improvement. "But for your buck, nothing gives you more visual impact than a gallon of paint." A taut-built and friendly but no-nonsense man in his 50s, Presser has been proprietor of Monarch Hardware (4502 Walnut St., 215-386-8364) since 1974. The epitome of family-owned Philly business, it's been alive and kicking for the last 101 years.
Presser has seen businesses come and go, while Monarch has operated continuously at 45th and Walnut for more than 75 years (and before that, at 36th and Market). He saw the Belvedere Hotel disappear, as well as the old "Ale and Pale" pub. He remembers when Acme was The American Store. Monarch is now sandwiched by a halal restaurant and a hairdresser.
The place is all things old-school and nothing shiny-box-store. A faded paint advertisement is taped to the glass door. The cash registers date back decades. But don't be deceived: Most any hardware item you can fathom is stuffed into the narrow store, including "heavy duty chrome-plated reflector bowls." In the rear, a yellowing, framed article from '79 hangs tilted against the wall.
A series of Presser men have operated the store, many of them war vets. His granddad started the business, passing it down to Allen's father and uncles, including "Uncle Joe" and "Uncle Charlie." Allen's dad, Marty, started working there as a teen during the Great Depression. He became proprietor upon his return from the Marines. After returning from Vietnam, Allen became co-owner with his father. He now runs the store with his son, David.
"I'll tell you a little story," smiles Presser. One Saturday night, not long after taking over the shop, Allen got a call as he was closing up. A woman, frantic that someone had stolen her store keys, pleaded with him to come to the 4300 block of Locust and change their locks. "So, I go down and these two young people come up. They were so frazzled. I felt so bad for them that I couldn't even charge them."
The two people turned out to be Judy Wicks and Richard Haynes, co-founders of the Free People's Store, which would later become Urban Outfitters. "And look where they're at now!" he laughs. His generosity would make Wicksowner of White Dog Caféa lifelong customer.
Today, a postal worker has keys made, and a woman dressed in Islamic garb looks at vacuum bags. A couple of carpenters are being rung up. "We have a very diverse group of customers, and they have already been to a Lowe's or a Home Depot or a Wal-Mart, so the glow of that is gone. When people come in, they actually get individual attention. Not 'Go to aisle 3' and 'I don't know.'"
That's not to say that box stores haven't cut into Monarch's business. But specializing in automotive lock work and residential and commercial glass repairs for historic homes and businesses has helped. That and the fact that neighborhood residents are the kind that "keep small businesses afloat," says Presser. "And we're very lucky for that."