After three generations, Marmelstein's closing on Fabric Row

Owner Judy Buchsbaum at the South Fourth Street rowhouse that has been home to Marmelstein’s since 1937.

The name of a Fabric Row mainstay, faded on its storefront window, is hidden behind a red banner that blares: "Retirement Sale Everything 1/2 Off."

Marmelstein's, in business since 1919, started with an immigrant's door-to-door needle-and-thread sales from his knapsack. After 96 years, its last day is Saturday.

Shoppers now roam South Fourth Street for the designer boutique, the hair salon, the bike shop, and the artisan studio that have reshaped a neighborhood once defined by textiles.

Across the street, a cat cafe that teases its opening with Facebook photos of "banana nutella sushi" is slated for January.

The fabric of the city is changing.

"Is this the fringe store?" a customer asked Wednesday as she entered Marmelstein's. Yes, at least for a few more days.

"Sorry," another customer said awkwardly after spotting the banner.

"Don't be sorry," said Judy Buchsbaum, 59. "I'm retiring. I'm lucky."

Fabric Row has evolved from its beginnings as a commercial district popularized by Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century.

Marmelstein's, a third-generation family-owned business, is a throwback to the days of pushcarts and cobblestone. Business is slow.

Buchsbaum's grandfather Abraham Marmelstein settled from Poland and swapped his knapsack for a pushcart. In 1937, he bought 760 S. Fourth St., a three-story rowhouse with ornate bay windows. Buchsbaum's mother grew up upstairs. After family dinners, the children scampered downstairs to play with piles of buttons.

For decades, business thrived. The family purchased more property on Fabric Row. Marmelstein's specialized in fine bridal items, then in fringe and trim for furniture and drapes. It opened a warehouse in Grays Ferry to handle a booming wholesale operation.

The retail customers at Marmelstein's were the middle-class rowhouse owners of South Philadelphia. Chubby Checker's grandmother came for 4 p.m. tea every day. Angelo Bruno's mother, always with a different goddaughter in tow, preferred the high-end wedding goods.

"It used to be custom, custom, custom," Buchsbaum said. "And now, because of the Internet and people's expectations, they go to Bed Bath & Beyond to buy something ready-made. They want everything faster, and custom takes weeks."

So Fabric Row changes. Buchsbaum, who wears a polo and jeans to work, scanned the store's 13 bookcases, still filled with trim. Green, orange, and pink tags signal discounts of 35 or 60 percent. The ceiling's crown molding cracks. Whatever is left, Buchsbaum said, will be sold in bulk to another fabric store. She will keep the building and lease it out, but no firm plans are set.

"It won't be the same," said Wanda Search, an interior designer from Langhorne who has shopped at Marmelstein's for two decades. "It wasn't just about buying the trims and the hardware; it was about the people at Marmelstein's, who were so helpful and dear. They're all characters."

During the success of the '90s, 20 employees invigorated Marmelstein's. Three are left; they face unemployment next week. David, the salesman. Loi, the bookkeeper. Wanda in customer service.

David Ramos, a diminutive 48-year-old wearing a Nike cap and silver chain, greeted customers: "What's up, sweetheart?" he said. He has worked at Marmelstein's for 28 years with no prior knowledge of textiles. Buchsbaum taught him.

"She's like a sister I never had," Ramos said, "but she's my boss."

He will try to find another job on Fabric Row, but Fabrics on Fourth just closed, too. His brother is a certified butcher; maybe Ramos will wrap meat.

Buchsbaum is not one to gush. She is tired of the grind. In February, a developer offered $650,000 for Marmelstein's warehouse on Dickinson Street. That was the tipping point.

As she cleaned corners of the store, Buchsbaum stumbled upon a tattered box of old Twin Brand millinery wire. Inside were 100-year-old artifacts.

A Fancy Leather Good Workers Union member card for A. Marmelstein dated Oct. 1, 1913. Postcards, mailed in 1914 from Warsaw, written in Yiddish. A business card for a Mr. Guttenplan, fashion artist.

Yes, Buchsbaum said, it is the end of an era. After Saturday, she will finish some orders and find a home for the remaining stock - or whatever heirlooms she uncovers.

Wedding portraits of Abraham and Dora Marmelstein grace the back office. Next to them hang decades-old sketches from inside the store, drawn by a relative.

"What life used to be," said Mark Dillingham, Buchsbaum's husband, as he admired them. Below, a laptop lit the room.

Buchsbaum considered her version of the American dream. Some sentimentality, finally, was appropriate.

"You know what? I'm really, really lucky," she said. "My grandparents worked hard. My parents worked hard. That enabled them to buy property on the block. And that's the only reason I can retire."

mgelb@philly.com

215-854-2928 @MattGelb