We got registers.
Anybody want these old registers? We got $10. $10 on these old registers. Sold. We got these walking sticks. $5. We got a buyer. Hey, nice old magazine racks here. $10. $5. $2. Anybody? No? Put it on the pile. Nice little vintage diner stool there. Sold. $7 is the buyer. Now, some nice pool cues. Buyer number is 177. One-seven-seven. Now, a nice crane scale. Anyone out there want a nice crane scale?
And so went the Kerry Pae Auctions auctioneer. By the end of the day, several thousand items had sold (and a bunch hadn’t), clearing out two sprawling warehouses and marking the final day of business for A. Lane Used Furniture.
Should one feel badly about a business closing after nine decades? After all, 90 is old in human years; it’s downright Jurassic in store years. And, as we all learned from the Bible or The Byrds, to everything there is a season, right? So, then what can be gleaned from the final gasp of the city’s ancient man of retail?
First, for all you bored office drones with a dream, the lesson may be this—operating a successful business takes scary commitment. Gene Fievish had it. When Fievish took command of the store from his aunt in the mid-1960s, A. Lane was already middle aged. The third-generation owner soon became synonymous with the store, where he could found inside—or, often, sitting outside with a buddy, watching the world drive by—until his death last year. By his own admission, Eric Epstein, Fievish’s nephew, didn’t have that kind of commitment, though he earns praise for attempting to extend the lifespan of a store that, but for his uncle’s sheer force of will, may have perished ages ago.
Which brings me to my second point.
The A. Lane inventory auction meant much more than the closing of a single musty, cluttered old store. It also emphasized, at least to me, the critical condition of a small, yet important, commercial stretch of Harrisburg, one that once provided urban connective tissue between the industrial corridor along Cameron Street and the smaller retail shops of downtown.
Today, these two blocks of Market Street constitute a graveyard of the pre-information age. There’s the mostly empty former post office, the very empty old Patriot-News headquarters, the shuttered Geiger & Loria Reporting Service building. Yes, Pavone has done its share, converting an old bank branch into beautiful office space. However, it’s the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal stretch of vacant, near-vacant and rundown buildings.
Indeed, the area is a tough sell. It’s cut off from downtown, sits directly atop flood-prone Paxton Creek, is victim to creeping blight and is now zoned in such a way that prohibits most industrial uses—even though it long has been an industrial area (for decades, the towering Graupner Brewery and the boxy Standard Baking Co. dominated these blocks).
However, you know something—I’m cautiously optimistic. For all its negatives, the area has some compelling strengths. It may be disconnected from the downtown core, but it’s still very close in, which could suit rapidly growing companies from the other side of the underpass (hello, Harrisburg University). There is also a lot of developable land, several cool, if decrepit, historic buildings, easy access to the highway and acres of cheap parking thanks to TransitPark.
Perhaps most significantly, the area is a stone’s throw from the Harrisburg Transportation Center (aka the train station). So, it stands to benefit from increased train travel, greater bus service (there is a movement to make the station more multimodal) and a growing aversion to car ownership. If redeveloped, this neighborhood would be one of the most walkable in the city.
To that end, PennDOT, along with the city and the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority, recently launched an initiative to plan transit-oriented development right in this area. In September, they asked for public input and expect to release their plan this month for the Harrisburg station neighborhood. I tend to be skeptical of these types of top-down efforts, if just because there’s usually no direct path from government-led plan to private-industry reality, no matter how worthwhile. That said—I’m eager to see what they come up with.
Chances are we’ve reached the low point along the 800- to 1000-blocks of Market Street. Redevelopment likely will come, though slowly, perhaps framed by government but ultimately driven by market forces and greater trends in society. The area reminds me of long-blighted sections of other cities, which developers eventually “discovered” after demand spilled over from more desirable areas nearby. When change comes, though, this patch of Market Street probably will retain little of its past, as the few remaining historic buildings, by then, may be too far gone to save, and new construction will probably have to be built above the flood line.
At the A. Lane auction, I bid on a single item—an old gumball machine, which I got for $15. After paying for it, I made my way through the crowd, exited the building one final time and placed my new toy gingerly into the trunk of my car. I looked up the block and immediately saw a huge, wooden “For Sale” sign, which stood outside the building next door. All around me were the relics of another time, when brewers and bakers and postal workers and journalists filled these streets, packing into nearby restaurants and bars, as well. Those days are long gone. But, someday, something else will be built here, and the area will finally shake off its decades-long, post-industrial decline. It’s up to us to figure out what—and when—that will be.
For more information about transit-oriented development and the Harrisburg initiative, visit www.planthekeystone.com/tod.html.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.