Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Character Counts: You never know what you’ll find at this quirky Lancaster co-op.

A brick archway leads to three rear 1900s-era warehouses full of memories and treasures.

The name on a green sign outside fits perfectly: Building Character. Its interior is a cool, open refuge, oozing character and interest. Visualize cement floors, exposed beam ceilings, steel piping and brick walls. Breathe in cinnamon and spice and a scent I fondly refer to as “grandma’s attic.”

Building Character opened on Oct. 5, 2007.

Once garages designed by Cassius Emlen Urban—a prolific architect who designed many beautiful old buildings in downtown Lancaster—the building remains in most of its original state.

Though it’s believed Urban produced over 273 drafts and 25 architectural styles, he devised a simple, red-brick row of one-story garages in the 300-block of N. Queen Street. Some residents might remember it as a historic warehouse, the former Lancaster Storage Co.

The current business owner, Marty Hulse, explained that when Lancaster Storage left, the then-owner wanted to raze it and put in parking. Fortunately for all you antique lovers, art admirers and Etsy shoppers, Lancaster City Historical Commission stepped in and voted to keep the structure. Eklund Development took over, transforming the building into its current retail space while keeping much of the original integrity.

Hulse intended Building Character as an architectural salvage shop. He rescued moldings and windows and cabinets from old homes and buildings then refurbished them for sale.

“A lot of things were coming down in Lancaster,” said Hulse. “To me, it was a social mission to keep those things out of landfills.”


Got Bored

Hulse is a collector of things he remembers and loves and is a self-dubbed “word nerd.” As a kid, he started a neighborhood newspaper named the Lafayette Gazette, “because I lived on Lafayette Street.” Headlines were set on his Fisher-Price Press, which he still owns.

“I collected magazine ads from Swatch,” he said. “I have a Swatch watch collection and still wear one every day.”

After graduating from Temple University, Hulse got a job reporting for the Delaware State News. Returning to PA, he became features copy editor for the York Daily Record. He eventually moved up to features senior editor for Lancaster Newspapers. In 2009, he shifted full-time to Building Character.

An artist browsed the salvage store one day and approached Hulse, asking if he’d be willing to rent out space.

“The architectural pieces weren’t selling, and demand grew for consignment,” he said.

Currently, 70-plus vendors rent three warehouses throughout 10,000 square feet.

“It’s a co-op, but it’s not all antiques,” Hulse said. “That comes from my lack of attention browsing other antique shops—I got bored.”

Building Character is a contemporary marketplace that sells recycled, re-purposed and handmade items. Inventory changes often. Have your coffee in one hand and keep your other hand free. Pick through vintage dishes (I bought dessert plates, then proudly displayed them heaped with iced birthday cake on my Facebook page), search through name-brand clothing, admire local art, upcycled jewelry, handmade gifts and cards, repurposed building pieces and memorabilia.

“I see this place as a creative outlet for office workers, teachers and those with an entrepreneurial spirit,” Hulse said.

Local Hammond’s pretzels are sold in front of Building Character’s checkout counter, along with Emma’s Amish Popcorn and locally made pet treats.

“We are more community-oriented, and that’s what sets us apart from other antique co-ops,” he said.

Hulse donates space to a working 1920s print shop, the Heritage Press Museum. The press gives live demonstrations and allows patrons to experience a printer’s job. I took home a couple of printed riddles for my kids to solve. Kept them busy while I wrote this article.

He also donates a stall to JP McCaskey’s art club, his high school alma mater.

“They sell their products, and the money goes back into art supplies,” he said.


Lot of Laughs

Original shopping bags from Hager’s millinery department are mounted on the staircase wall leading to a second-floor corner office. A picture of the façade of M. T. Garvin and Co. also graces the wall, as do photos of past retail industry giants.

“Lancaster has a strong retail past,” Hulse said. “And that continues to this day.”

A second-floor clothing stall leads right into the Lucky Marketing Co. workshop, Hulse’s production arm. There, he creates greeting cards, calendars, reproductive postcards, stickers, T-shirts, buttons, high school pendants, and old maps. On the day of my visit, an aproned elf busied herself pouring Christmas scents into candle molds.

While another elf diligently adhered prints onto tiles, Hulse pointed out the garment printer, mug printer, screen printer and foil pencil press.

Hulse handed me a “Golden Girls” printed bookmark. I couldn’t help but smile and gasp, much like “Golden Girl” Rose. General manager and friend, Joel Henry, had created a birthday gift of custom tiles pasted with “The Golden Girls” faces. That’s right—Blanche, Sophia, Dorothy and Rose.

“I love ‘The Golden Girls,’” said Hulse.

After Henry sold quite a few more sets on Etsy, Hulse decided to create a “Golden Girls” product line. The line is sold a few doors down Queen Street at his second shop, Madcap and Co.

“It’s a funky gift shop—a contemporary, upscale Spencer’s selling local, American-made, and fair trade products,” he said. “I love Lancaster. I grew up here, so we have a whole line of Lancaster products.”

The Lucky Marketing Co. also prints tiles and coasters with Lancaster landmarks, area codes and neighborhoods.

Hulse said that he tries to stay away from anything imported.

“My businesses are the epitome of shop local,” he said.

He also designs a line of crass greeting cards appropriately named, “Totally Inappropriate Cards.” His logo—“When you care enough to send the very worst.” I giggled my way through the line and bought quite a few.

“We like to have fun and get a lot of laughs,” Hulse said.

What started with a simple vision has grown to 70 vendors, three businesses and nine employees.

“Our employees are willing to be adaptable, try new things, and give customers what they want,” Hulse said.

Building Character is located at 342 N. Queen St., Lancaster. For more information, call 717-394-7201 or visit

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