When the Market-Frankford line rumbles above Frankford Avenue and commuters peek out their windows, they see rows of nondescript shops shadowed by the El tracks’ steel encasement. The Frankford Avenue corridor, located in an area that has had its share of economic woes, is not the shopping destination it once was, but for those "in the know," the neighborhood houses some hidden gems.
These long-running small businesses—and their owners’ passion for customers and community—form the barely-glimpsed support beams of a city. Their stories are the story of Philadelphia, and their resilience is evidence of our enduring urban fiber. The future of Frankford will be built on the happy confluence of next generation businesses and old guard artisans.
Lorenzo’s Hair Styling
4848 Frankford Avenue
On a summer night in 1956, Lorenzo Della Valle clung to a lifeboat. He was waiting for help to arrive after his ship, bound from Italy, crashed and sunk off the coast of Massachusetts. He decided that once he was firmly back on land he was going to stay there—for good.
Originally from the Abruzzi e Molise region in Southern Italy, Della Valle came to the States via the ill-fated SS Andrea Doria
. Trained in Italy as a barber and beautician by the age of 16, Della Valle settled in Frankford with his paternal uncle once he arrived in Philadelphia. He was able to find work immediately.
After about two years in his newly adopted country, Lorenzo found a job offering better wages. When he gave his three-weeks notice, he was fired. Out of a job for almost a month, Della Valle began looking around for something to occupy his time. He eventually noticed that the barbershop at 4848 Frankford Avenue was vacant. He knew he wanted to buy it, but he also knew that he was out of money.
Luckily, friends and family believed in Della Valle, lending him money to buy the shop. At the age of 21, three weeks after he was fired from his job, Lorenzo opened his first barbershop. He is still in business.
Today, Della Valle is 73. Wearing a classic white barber’s coat and a smile that lights up the room, he is the only one working the shop. Though the neighborhood has changed drastically over the years and many people have moved away, Lorenzo’s Hair Styling is still open for business six days a week.
"People go out of their way to come back," says Della Valle.
4529 Frankford Ave.
In his workshop, Gilbert Pons Jr. carefully pulls out a dilapidated antique wooden chair that sat in a client’s basement for 60 years. Water damage has destroyed the base of one of the legs, the fabric is ripped and the chair’s decorative etchings are filled with dust and cobwebs. Gilbert and his brother Ricardo are confident that they’ll be able to restore the chair to its original state. Looking at the beautifully revived furniture displayed in the shop’s front parlor, you just know it’s going to happen. After all, with over 40 years of experience, rehabbing furniture is second nature to the Pons.
"We get them in deplorable condition," says Gilbert of the furnishings that come into the shop for reupholstering and restoration. Clients haul in some of their most cherished heirlooms and found antiques. The brothers do their work on the premises, in a large, bright multi-floor workspace. Most of the clientele—who come from as far away as New York City—are from referrals.
When the Pons family emigrated from Cuba to Philadelphia in 1970, they left behind the family’s furniture manufacturing business. Shortly after arriving in the United States, Gilbert Pons Sr. opened his own upholstery shop on Frankford Avenue.
"Furniture has always been in our background," says Gilbert. Luckily, during those early days, the Pons family had built-in help. "As a little kid we had to come to the shop to help out," recalls Gilbert, who was nine years old when his family arrived in Philadelphia. "It just evolved from there."
4935 Frankford Ave.
When you walk into S&A Cleaners on Frankford Avenue, the chime of the store’s security alert system is like a friendly greeting. Owner Herb Frayer's small, pristine shop is a classic dry cleaning business, but one with a little bit of umph
. The good-natured Frayer stays attuned to his clientele’s needs by keeping his "ear to the ground." In addition to offering dry cleaning and tailoring services, S&A has a small selection of clothes and accessories, including sparkly costume jewelry, for sale.
Frayer opened S&A Cleaners 14 years ago—the "S" stands for Sarah, his mother, and the "A" stands for Amir, his son. He has a natural business acumen that keeps things interesting around the shop. "In business you have to be versatile," he says. "Keep reinventing yourself."
At the age of 15, Frayer began his career as a presser. Before opening his own brick-and-mortar shop, he worked out of his mother’s home, using SEPTA to pick up and deliver clothes to his customers.
Eventually, his mother grew tired of her son’s clients’ clothes overtaking her home. She told him he had to get the clothes out of her house. It was just the push he needed to open his own shop.
A lifetime Frankford resident, Frayer is proud of his family’s ties to the area. In 1972, his mother was one the first African Americans to obtain a mortgage and purchase a home in Frankford, at the time a predominately white neighborhood. His mother’s groundbreaking achievement and his strong faith in God serve as the spiritual foundation for his business.
When speaking about his philosophy, Frayer speaks in language he can relate to: "If you put enough patches together, you can make a quilt."
4831 Frankford Avenue
Neil’s isn’t your classic furniture store. Sure, they sell lamps, beds, couches and dining room tables, but they also offer that thing lacking at your typical big-box furniture store: warmth and personality.
"My dad was very personable. A lot of times, people would just stop by to say hi," says owner Rebecca Goldberg-Harter. "They really loved him."
When Neil Goldberg opened his furniture business in 1979, he may not have realized that one day, his business would become a local tradition. Today, great grandchildren of some of his original customers venture to the shop for that perfect piece of furniture. Neil’s not only furnishes homes in Frankford, but also residences in the suburbs and vacation homes along the Jersey Shore.
When Goldberg passed away in 2010, Goldberg-Harter—who began working part time with her father in 2003—took over the helm. "It was supposed to be part-time and ended up being full-time," she recalls.
It’s easy to see that Goldberg-Harter, 31, admired her father and his impact on the community. She keeps the traditions that her father began, including a lifetime layaway policy. One item was on layaway was for 8 years. The customer popped in to pay, doubting that the furniture was still on hold. Goldberg-Harter reassured her: They had it waiting.
Neil’s Furniture’s willingness to work with customers—and the thoughtfulness of Goldberg-Harter, her assistant Chuck MacIlvain and the rest of the store’s small crew—has eliminated the need for advertising. All of Neil’s business is referral based. If they don’t have what a customer wants in the showroom, they will most likely be able find it in one of the myriad catalogs they have available. "We work with our customers," says Goldberg-Harter.
4663 Frankford Avenue
When Nafisah Lewis’ husband, Salim, wanted to open his own business, she volunteered to help. Little did she know that the all-day breakfast shop’s 13-hour shifts would eventually take a toll.
"I was stressed out because I did everything," says Nafisah of the café’s early incarnation which featured just one grill and a frying pan. These days, Iqraa’s hours are reasonable for a small business (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.; Saturdays, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.; closed on Sundays), and the husband and wife team are able to offer much more than just breakfast.
The couple have an adventurous spirit, and enjoy experimenting with their menu, which is neatly written in chalk on a large blackboard. When they first opened, "every couple of months, we were adding something," recalls Nafisah.
The café began as a bookstore/breakfast shop (Iqraa means "read" in Arabic), and evolved into a Halal deli. Breakfast is still served everyday, all day, but the café also serves belgian waffles, battered fresh fish and brown bag lunch specials. When a customer finishes up their meal, they can purchase a little something for their home—Nafisah also has handmade candles available for purchase. "I do a lot of things and one thing I do like is candles," says Nafisah, who also used to run her own seamstress business.
Originally from South Philadelphia, Nafisah considers Frankford her true home. Nafisah and Salim use the café to build connections within the community. They believe in assisting those recently released from prison. "We want to give them a second chance," she says.
ZENOVIA CAMPBELL is a Master of Journalism student at Temple University and lives in South Philly. Send feedback here.