March 7–14, 2002

naked city

Paving Paradise

I don’t want to live in a Philadelphia without I. Goldberg’s.

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Bye, Goldberg’s?: The future of this Philly institution is unclear.

photo: Christina M. Felice

Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny (867-5309)” is playing somewhere over my head as I gaze at the colored Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star high-tops in The Original I. Goldberg’s shoe department and for a moment it’s 1985 again. I am a junior in high school. My friends Terry and Chris and I are on one of our periodic trips to Goldberg’s, via the PATCO High Speedline, in search of Chucks and military surplus gear to supplement our suburban kids’ interpretation of the punk new-wave look. For a moment I am young and hip again (or, more precisely, I can vividly recall my youthful confidence in my own coolness) and the pure, simple joy of this makes me smile.

The spell is broken when I realize my almost-4-year-old son is running up and down the aisles with a wooden stick, part of his beloved toy bow and arrow set, between his legs. My attempt to give chase is hindered by the stroller I’m lugging around, which is laden with things my wife and I are buying. But the stroller is not the only thing weighing me down, and my son’s innocently obscene antics not the only reason that when jarred from my momentary reverie I suddenly feel old and unsure. This is a bittersweet occasion: I. Goldberg’s, my favorite store forever, is having a massive liquidation sale (I got jungle boots for $24!) that marks the beginning of an uncertain future.

The sale has been “mentally and physically exhausting,” admits Nana Goldberg, who owns the business with her father Charles (son of founder Isaac). Business has increased dramatically since word of the sale got out, and she and the rest of the staff have had to spend a lot of time explaining just what the hell is going on.

The short answer is that the business lost its lease. The longer answer, Nana explains, is that the family partnership that owns the building (her father is a member but she is not) is made up mostly of people not in the business, and who are “happy to accept an offer to sell the property.” To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, someone wants to pave merchandise and put up a parking garage.

Nana admits it wasn’t a complete shock. The gradual decline of retail on and near the 900 block of Chestnut (Goldberg’s is at 902) has left the store “a business on an island. We’re completely surrounded by [Thomas Jefferson Hospital] and it’s really not a natural [pairing] — ‘I just had surgery and now I think I’d like to do some shopping.’”

Sure, Philly is a walkable city, she adds, but “it’s not made up of walking people.” So Goldberg’s has become a destination, almost a secret among its myriad regulars. And while it’s nice to have a loyal following, it’s important to have a steady stream of first-timers and one-timers as well.

So Goldberg’s must move. But to where remains uncertain. Moving out of Center City doesn’t seem like an option, Nana says, but the area’s rapidly rising rents are daunting. So too is the prospect of incurring debt in order to rehab an unused property. Either case would mean raising prices, which would begin to change the nature of this eclectic, unpretentious and utterly unique store.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I. Goldberg’s provided my first lesson in the differences between cities and the suburbs. Lindenwold, N.J., the town where I grew up, has two things going for it: a Canal’s discount liquor store and the High Speedline. (Note that both provide a means of escape.) The former was of no use to me then, but the latter was an important part of my adolescence. From the time I was about 13, I rode the train regularly with friends to go to the Vet for Eagles’ games, the Spectrum for concerts, South Street to see and be seen, and Goldberg’s to shop.

My father was a Marine who served in Vietnam, and I developed a fondness for military gear early on. So to find an entire store devoted to it — and not just American stuff but obscure items from all around the world — was a life-altering experience. Later, as I affected a new-wave look, it became the only place to shop.

After college I moved to Philly, and continued to make occasional visits. When my wife and I needed boots for our honeymoon trip to Ireland, I never considered going anywhere else. (I was wearing the same boots when I visited Nana Goldberg this week, and I realized later that the socks and scarf I was wearing were from her store as well.) During that same visit I spotted an Australian-outback duster with detachable wool lining, and before I knew it my credit card debt was $225 heavier.

Last December, when I wanted to buy a Christmas present for my oldest son — something specifically from Daddy — I went straight to Goldberg’s. The camo pants and t-shirt and olive-drab canvas bag weren’t as big a hit as I’d hoped, but it pleased me immensely to buy him something from a place that was meaningful to me.

And I recognize now that my feelings for this smelly, run-down, wondrous store are inextricably tied to my love of this sometimes smelly, largely run-down, occasionally wondrous city, and others like it. Cities are important and should be valued precisely because they are home to irreplaceable gems like The Original I. Goldberg’s.

Nana won’t directly address the worst-case scenario — that she will be unable to find a suitable, affordable new home for her 83-year-old business. She’s hoping it won’t come to that. I am too, and so should anyone who cares about Philadelphia — and not as the place that loves you back, but as the place that should love itself exactly the way it is. Much was made over the opening of the Hard Rock Café, and even more over the glorified mall that may someday occupy Penn’s Landing. Even Ed Rendell, who has done more for this city’s spirit than anyone in recent history, seemed content, even eager, to make the city look and feel more like the suburbs. Is our collective inferiority complex that pervasive? Are we really that pathetic?

I felt a twinge of guilt as I eagerly snapped up boots and other items at greatly reduced prices last Saturday, as if I were capitalizing on a tragedy. I also resented the crowd; I fancied that I could tell who was a loyal customer and who was just there to pick over the bones.

At my prodding, Nana admits to similar feelings.

“There was a guy in here the other day,” she recalls, “and he said, ‘I haven’t been here in 40 years!’ And I said, ‘Well don’t wait another 40 years, ’cause we won’t be here!’” She adds, “I’m the treasurer of the Center City Proprietors’ Association, and I say this all the time: If you want businesses like this to survive, you’ve got to patronize them.”

Again, Joni Mitchell comes to mind: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”