The wholesale chronicling of Fifth Avenue in Uptown Pittsburgh

Duo to present stories behind businesses


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Fifth Avenue was in Amy Lowenstein's blood, and so was research.

About six years ago, when she opened the first volume of 100 years' worth of Pittsburgh city directories, she began a pursuit of the Uptown corridor's wholesale history, a project that resulted in a 6,000-entry database that found a home in the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center.

Ms. Lowenstein, whose father and grandfather were Fifth Avenue wholesalers, was a professional researcher before her retirement. She knew people who had worked in family wholesale businesses and included their memories among 20 interviews she conducted and gave to the archives, along with information about every tenant from the 600 to the 1400 block.

She and Eric Lidji, a freelance writer and archive volunteer, will present their collaborative work, "They Could Get it for You Wholesale," from 1 to 3 p.m. April 21 in the archive room at the history center, 1212 Smallman St. in the Strip District. The event is free and open to the public.

"This is a remarkable piece of work," said Susan Melnick, the Rauh archivist. "In my 16 years here, I can't think of another project like this. It has given us a greater perspective and helped us make connections to materials we already have. We have been enriched."

Mr. Lidji compiled stories from interviews, collected photos and created spreadsheets of names, dates and addresses from the 1880s to the 1980s. Some stories also live on his blog, The Ongoing History of Pittsburgh (ericlidji.wordpress.com), as "the Fifth Avenue Project."

Fifth Avenue Uptown was the densest supplier of clothing and household wares between New York and Chicago. It contributed to the development of the Jewish middle class, from the early days of peddling to the growth of warehouses with traveling salesmen.

One of Ms. Lowenstein's interviews was with Mark Loevner, whose grandfather, Philip, was a peddler of underwear and built his business with his brother-in-law, Gus Trau.

"My grandfather built the building in 1908, a five-story building that was where the hockey arena is now," said Mr. Loevner, whose family's business hired salesmen who traveled as far as western New York and most of West Virginia. The business left the avenue in 1970, but Trau & Loevner, now owned by Mr. Loevner's son and nephew, Howard and Steven Loevner, sells sportswear in East Liberty.

"One thing I found interesting was how personal things were," Mr. Lidji said. "Some businesses had handshake deals for decades and bank loans were based on reputations. One salesman who was in a town when the last train left stayed overnight with the retailer. Some people would take suitcases on the train, and some people walked."

"It was a beginning," Ms. Lowenstein said. "There were not many choices. My grandfather started out as a peddler of hosiery. He chose hosiery because it was light."

Manufacturers would sell job lots -- quantities of overruns and extras -- to wholesalers who were called jobbers, Ms. Lowenstein said. "My father [Robert Comins, who sold footwear] was able to open a real business because his father had found out about a job lot."

One jobber, Jacob Shapira, ran an ad in the Pittsburgh Press in 1894 offering children's white merino vests, table linens and underwear. He had made contact with 60 different large manufacturers for their job lots.

Ms. Lowenstein said her research indicated that the avenue maintained a consistent density for a century. The wholesale industry began disintegrating for several reasons.

"We were redeveloped," Ms. Lowenstein said of her family's business, which stood where Chatham Center is now.

The relationship between the factories and wholesalers also began changing, Mr. Lidji said. Manufacturers' representatives made wholesalers obsolete. It was also the dawn of the large discount retail chains.

"Also, that generation of children didn't want to go into the business," Ms. Lowenstein said.

She said she is pleased that her research has brought the lives of so many people to light.

"It was amazing how through the directories they came alive," she said. "You could glean so much and see the directions of people's success. It's a genealogical resource, too. You find out that a business went under because somebody died, or there was a marriage because a son-in-law joined the business."

Mr. Lidji, 30, previously worked for the Jewish Chronicle and penned a recent article in it calling for more stories, documents, old ledgers and photographs to enhance the Fifth Avenue project. "This project has given me a sense of purpose in the Jewish community," he said. "The more I've done on this project, the more value I've found in even little things. When I started, it was all romantic and nostalgic. I would read details that were so charming.

"As I find out more, it becomes more realistic, and I'm starting to realize how difficult life was for them. They sacrificed a lot," he said, noting that some traveling salesmen would "leave the family at 5:30 on a Monday morning and come back for dinner on Friday."

Small histories can contribute greatly to a larger picture but are usually lost because no one thought they were important at the time, he said.

"My hope is that this becomes a model for other communities to tell their histories."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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