Abe Mandel cracks jokes even as his picture is taken, a spirited 75-year-old who’s ready to retire.
– Staff Photos by Bill Chenevert
This page could get filled every week with South Philly real estate gossip, development news and anecdotal evidence that Philadelphia south of South Street is changing and rapidly. But every once in a while, an anchor of East Passyunk Avenue passes a metaphorical torch and suddenly the thoroughfare looks and feels different.
Abe Mandel, proprietor of A Man’s Image, 1709 E. Passyunk Ave., is letting go of his baby this spring – another iconic, family-owned business is handing the keys over to an outsider, Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant, a Spanish restaurant group with twelve locations in Connecticut, Atlanta, GA, Washington, D.C., and the Boston area.
“The news is simple, I’ve had enough. My store will be closed toward the end of May, perhaps a little longer, and the new tenant will take possession, and it’ll take them a while to make this a showplace, and they’ll open up when they think it’s the right time,” Mandel said Tuesday, his 75th birthday.
He owns the building, having bought it in 1995 when it was a bank, and it’s where his clothing retail enterprise will finally come to an end after nearly 60 years of business.
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Mandel initially set up shop at Seventh and Mercy streets and, for a time, operated out of Cramer’s Uniforms, 1704 E. Passyunk Ave. Mandel says A Man’s Image’s heyday came at the end of the ’60s and in the last half of the ’80s (in the latter period, it’s reported, annual revenues reached towards $2 million). And on the Avenue, he’s seen people come and go but, lately, sees primarily healthy growth.
“As soon as I find a nice store for my employees, I’ll fund them and carry them for a year and then they’re on their own. I’m just paying them back – a little loyalty,” Mandel, who plans to find another spot on the Avenue for three loyal employees, said. The two from South Philly, Louis Zulli and Bob Taylor, have been with Mandel for 31 and 28 years, respectively.
Barcelona seems to be a good fit, something he and EPA Business Improvement District executive director Renee Gillinger, agree on.
“Whatever’s best for the Avenue is best for me. You give back to the street that lets you make a living,” he said.
Referring to plans drawn up for how Barcelona’s team will revamp A Man’s Image, Mandel seems pleased.
“It’s one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen the papers and the drafts. It’s going to be a jewel on Passyunk Ave.”
The restaurant chain, established in ’96, has grown into “the largest Spanish restaurant group in the United States,” according to its press kit. With 40 wines by the glass, an impressive list of Tapas ($4.50-$11.50) plus large portions to share like signature paella, chicken or pork, they purport to adjust design and menus to the neighborhood.
“They’re giving me enough rental so I don’t have to work,” Mandel said of the welcome respite. “I don’t sleep at night. You can’t change the makeup of an individual.”
He credits his wife, Susan, for being “the smartest thing [he’s] ever done – marry her.” She’s his bookkeeper, and “really something” for the business. Interestingly, he seems to share sign art credit with the recently-removed King of Jeans sign – Steven Calabrese from Uneeda Sign, 2811 S. 10th St., gave his Passyunk Avenue shop a facelift 21 years ago. “A new fresh look, a new image,” Mandel recalled, on changing Mandel’s to A Man’s Image (his initials – A. Mandel). “Something new, people always want something new. Years ago it was the older the better, not it’s the younger the better – everyone wants to be the first.”
No more than five blocks southwest of Mandel’s shop, it seems, a lesser-glamorous takeover might be in the works. The former Beneficial Bank, 2037 S. Broad St., was recently revealed to have a tenant (secured in October of 2015) – Wendy’s. The building sold for a little under $750,000 in 2012 and has 3,800 square feet on the ground floor and another 1,500 square feet on a mezzanine floor.
Backlash on the web has been potent. In fact, there’s been a call to action from the South Broad Street Neighborhood Association (SBSNA) “to express your views and concerns about the proposal” at their March 15 Zoning meeting (7 p.m. at the 1st floor conference room inside the Constitutional Health Plaza, 1930 S. Broad St.).
“Yeah, I’d say this block is especially garbage-y,” Arik, a resident of the 1400 block of Castle Avenue, said Tuesday afternoon. He notes that there was a short-lived juice place at 20th Street and West Passyunk Avenue that “closed super-fast.”
The 2000 block of South Broad Street, especially on the east side, is quite packed with fast food and retail: Rainbow, 2009 S. Broad St.; Kicks USA, 2013 S. Broad St.; Rite-Aid, 2017-2023 S. Broad St.; Dunkin’ Donuts, 2025 S. Broad St.; Popeye’s, 2027 S. Broad St.; and McDonald’s, 2033 S. Broad St., are already present.
One gentleman, who refused to offer his name but said he lives at 29th and Tasker streets, said “Wendy’s has some good deals.” They may steal from business from their immediate neighbors.
A freshman at South Philly High School, 2101 S. Broad St., shrugged at the news and said “food is food.” She and her friends often try to hang out at the McDonald’s after school, but they don’t let them in until 4 p.m. (“They think we’re skipping school or something,” she said).
Another woman, a Queen Village resident who refused to share her identity, said she’s about to write 1st District Councilman Mark Squilla a letter because of supermarket shifts, movings and closings.
“More fast food? We don’t need it,” she said.
Just then, a grizzled man on a bike rode by, ringing his bell and singing out “Perks, volumes, dingaling!” It’s a mixed and sometimes troubled crowd that haunts the block.
Barbara, a retiree who pointed west down Snyder Avenue indicating where she lives, said she doesn’t mind taking buses to get to a Shop-Rite and misses the recently-closed Dollar Store from the 2000 block. What else she does lament? “How people used to sit down to dinner at a table with their family.”
Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 117.