Daniel Rubin | Tending archive of his memories

Mike Schluth saves the grimmest news for last. Here, on the ninth floor of Alstin Advertising, between sales and accounts payable, he curates what he calls The Hall of War, Death & Destruction.

Bold front-page headlines trumpet the murders of JFK and John Lennon, the sinking of the Titanic, the shootings at Kent State, and the passing of the Franks - Rizzo and Sinatra.

Then, this from 1996: "Strawbridge Is Sold; Clover to Close."

For an ad man who grew up reading newspapers back-to-front, this was a funeral, too - the loss of the last locally owned department store and expiration of a major meal ticket for businesses like The Inquirer, for which he sold classifieds from 1968 to '75.

"It's a sad testimony to being a Philadelphian," says Schluth, inside his shop at 1401 Walnut St. But somehow he doesn't sound sad.

Maybe it's the space: He's created a personal, soothing place to work: two Peaceable Kingdom floors stuffed with knickknacks (mostly owls), life-sized dummies (even his own likeness on a Rittenhouse Square bench) and family memorabilia. (His father, Frankie Schluth, was an emcee at the old Palumbo's nightclub in South Philly.)

For a guy whose office is a monument to his memories, Schluth is unsentimental when it comes to his work. He's had to be to survive.

The changing world

The year 2000 was the high point for Alstin, which found its niche in recruitment ads. His 63 employees brought in $36 million in sales - mostly in last-minute ads they'd place in print classified sections.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

"It knocked the living daylights out of the employment recruitment business," he says. "Companies weren't thinking of expanding workforce. They were thinking about the country and how to survive."

His sales plummeted by a third. The staff shrank by a similar share. The Internet changed what 9/11 left standing. Now, most of the staff's time is spent on things having nothing to do with print media.

Last month, Alstin won a national prize for designing a Web site that helps Comcast recruit finance professionals. At comcastaccountingjobs.com, numbers dance to a boogie-woogie tune, delivering the message: "accounting with additude." Potential hires learn of the site via Web ads, e-mails, direct mail and print.

"It's a field that didn't exist a few years ago," says Schluth, a wiry, bald, 63-year-old in jeans and a sport shirt. "If you can't change, you're doomed."

He describes himself as pure Philly, a blue-collar, Bud-in-a-bottle kind of guy who happens to drive a Porsche and have a house at the Shore. He tends to speak about himself in the third person.

Schluth on Schluth

"Let me tell you who Mike Schluth is," he says, launching into his family's North Philly to Mayfair to Melrose Park path. His father - "typical stubborn German immigrant" - was an entertainer who didn't have insurance when he suffered a stroke on a family trip to Florida. For his last 20 years, he had to find menial jobs. His son inherited some of that grit.

Mike Schluth keeps a scrapbook filled with clippings of his dad's appearances. "He was an important man. He was in the news. I only saw him cry once. We went to Palumbo's and [Mrs.] Palumbo recognized him. They asked him to come up on stage. He wouldn't do it. Couldn't. A tear formed in his eye. To think he'd never be a part of that life again."

A visit with Mike Schluth yields a deep family history. He's got three grown kids from his first marriage, and two still in school from his second.

In his office, he shows off a last treasure: a plaque for "Michael's Bridge." For years, he and his son, Mike, used the Lorimer Park bridge to cross the Pennypack Creek, where they'd skip stones and hunt for frogs. During a return visit a few years ago, they learned that Hurricane Floyd had wiped out the bridge.

Schluth couldn't imagine not being able to bring his son or grandchildren to the spot in the future, so he paid to rebuild the bridge in his name.

"Your memories are your most important possession," he says. "It's the one thing you, alone, own."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/danrubin.