Money can’t buy you love, happiness, or class. But if you live in Gladwyne, one of the country’s most affluent zip codes, a fistful of cash won’t even buy you a $7 ham sandwich a few days from now.
Something unwelcome is happening inside this legendarily wealthy enclave of Lower Merion Township. It is a lesson. An illustration of how, even in our gilded age of growing income inequality, with soaring incomes at the top, stagnant incomes at the middle, and mostly underfunded public schools, even the super-rich apparently can’t have it all.
The Lunch Box, a beloved hole-in-the-wall, cash-only hangout with just 16 seats, an L-shaped counter, a grill, and a chalkboard menu, is closing its doors this month. This would mark the end for a roughly 60-year-old community greasy spoon in the tiny Gladwyne business district surrounded by some of the most gargantuan incomes in Pennsylvania.
The lease on the grill-and-sandwich spot is expiring in what is among Pennsylvania’s four most affluent zip codes by income. Owner Theo Gerike told me the store’s demise is all but certain given that he and his landlord don’t see eye to eye on a renewal. (I couldn’t reach the landlord to ask for myself.)
Because Gladwyne is a place whose every square inch of real estate is worth a mini-fortune, Gerike could find no affordable alternative within the miniature shopping district. This has left the people grieving on Facebook, Land of Eternal Griping. But they are mourning more than just lost lunch.
Just a few days ago in the same mini-business corridor along Youngs Ford Road, Acme emptied the shelves of Gladwyne’s only conventional supermarket. The Acme building and parking lot are now vacant. Acme won’t say what may come of the property, which it controls under lease.
Two years earlier, right next to the Acme, the community’s most prominent gathering spot bit the dust. The long-standing owner/operator of a 19th-century inn known as the Guard House sold it, shuttering the Main Line’s Old Money watering hole and restaurant. Today, you can’t get into the landmark near Conshohocken State Road unless you belong to the members-only Union League, which snapped it up.
People are not happy.
The irony is instructive.
Gladwyne, of course, is where capitalists go once capitalists have amassed sufficient capital to buy into Gladwyne.
But along the business district, it seems brute market forces are showing that they do not play favorites. Locals be damned. Three businesses that used to peddle some of the most cherished amenities of daily living — ready access to food and community — are walking away.
This is a paradox evident across the suburbs. The richer the town, the harder it is for a non-chain food business there anymore. And as a resident, you hardly notice why. You buy a Tesla and a $5 million Gladwyne estate (there’s one for sale right down the street on Youngs Ford Road, by the way), and you become convinced that, yes, you do now have it all.
But then the same real estate that gives your post office such extraordinary cachet picks your pocket. Ordinary amenities you thought should always be there go bye-bye, because who, really, can afford to flip eggs at rents of $100 or more a square foot in a sleepy town?
A TV producer I ran into this week eating a cheddar omelette at the Lunch Box told me the locals are “freaking out.”
“Billionaires are sitting here with guys who are working guys" is how John Isen, in sweatpants and a cap, described the eatery. He was sitting at an empty counter during the start of Wednesday’s snowstorm. “Every walk of life comes through. Everyone’s the same.”
Gerike bought the place five years ago in its current site, a 400-square-foot box that had served, in a prior life, as a barbershop. He’s a Haddonfield native living in Villanova with his anesthesiologist wife, herself a Main Line native.
He has found it as interesting as I do that the fabulously wealthy, just as they did with Little Pete’s in Center City, have gravitated so loyally to such a stripped-down standby.
“If you’re an idle, wealthy person with plenty of time on your hands, wouldn’t you want to go somewhere more than a mile away?” he asked with a laugh. “The appeal is it’s like your own little tree fort. You’ve been going there forever. It’s like having your mom make you a sandwich.”
Every walk of life, Isen had said to me. Everyone’s the same.
There is something primal, it seems, about everyone — even if only over a plate of eggs over medium — being in the same tree fort at the same time.