Walkabout: In Allentown, House at Bethany has a mission beyond sales

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Allentown's retail picture brightened a little when the pretty storefront at 748 Warrington Ave. came alive in April, giving the neighborhood something it hasn't had for a while -- a place to buy a pair of pants, shoes, a blouse, a novel, a piece of glassware, a clock, a picture of a horse in a meadow.

This is not the retail most people have in mind when they wish for investment in their neighborhoods. It's the retail of great need.

Allentown's newest store, the House at Bethany, is part thrift shop, part ministry. Chaplain Marcy Aikens tends the store.

She was folding clothes to clear a center table one recent morning when Jerry Butler and Tom Brahler walked in within a minute of each other.

"You have a lot of nice stuff," Mr. Brahler said, scanning the neatly folded piles of shirts and the table of ball caps near the door. "You're getting closer to what I like."

"What do you like?" Ms. Aikens asked.

He either didn't hear or chose not to answer. He leaned in to look more closely at housewares on a shelf.

"No dinosaur books?" Mr. Butler asked. "I'm into dinosaurs."

"I'm sorry," Ms. Aikens said.

"Oh well," he said, "I never have any money anyway. But I have told several people about you. Maybe they'll stick their noses in and see what you've got."

Mr. Brahler straightened up.

"Well," he said, "I'm going down to see Carl the Barber." He scanned the shop one more time before disappearing through the doorway onto a sidewalk that's small-town quiet with a lot of free parking and not many takers.

• • •

The vitality that has shot wind into the city's sails, proffering No. 1 rankings and poising the likes of Garfield, the Hill District and Larimer for renewal, has not blown up to the southern hilltop neighborhoods.

Like so many of them, Allentown has businesses, legacy architecture and great housing stock.

"I'd try to buy Allentown if I could," Mr. Butler said. "It's a good old neighborhood struggling like so many. This store is a nice thing for us."

The House at Bethany is a mission of the North American Old Roman Catholic Church's parish of Santa Maria Magdalena, which has just purchased a former Serbian Orthodox church at 185 Knox Ave.

Monsignor Victor Cianca said the thrift store is a focal point of the ministry.

"The church needs to be out in the streets," he said.

"There is a great need here," Ms. Aikens said. "But people have been very responsive in bringing us contributions. We try to keep prices very low. And you can come here and receive prayer.

"People come in just to sit in peace," she said. "Sometimes they are hurting and just need some compassion."

Ms. Aikens has the help of several volunteers from a nearby retirement center.

"I have one woman who comes in on a walker, who sits folding baby clothes. I'm very glad when grandmas come in to volunteer," she said. "I had one here when a younger woman came in, and as we were talking, said she can't get her roast chicken to come out nice. The grandma told her, 'Oh now, you can do it,' and told her how."

Ms. Aikens plans to have a Crocheters for Christ group to knit baby hats and mittens for the poor, a rosary-making guild and Bible studies for children.

"One teenage boy talked to me for a few minutes, and we prayed," she said. "Afterward, you'd have thought a snake overcoat had fallen off of him. Later he came back with a friend and things for the store."

Mr. Butler continued to poke around, admitting "there's no harm in looking." He noted the table of ball caps, many from various pro sports teams.

"As long as you don't have a Baltimore Ravens cap it'll be OK," he said. Grabbing a goblet from a shelf, he held it up like a Stanley Cup and said, "Hey look! You have a Holy Grail."

neigh_city - intelligencer

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk. First Published June 19, 2012 4:00 AM

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