ORT America Closes Center City Shop, Sells Building

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The longtime Center City thrift shop that benefitted the international nonprofit has closed its doors forever.

For anyone who has made a habit of perambulating down the 100 block of South 19th Street over the past few decades, the tiny, brick-red awning and whimsically overstuffed display window of the ORT Resale Shop has been an instantly recognizable landmark, a longtime beacon to habitués of thrift shops and urban treasure hunters alike.
 
No more. After 35 years, the tiny storefront at 29 South 19th St. ceased singing its siren song of sale-priced clothes and tchotchkes, the result of ORT America’s decision to sell the building to an as-yet unnamed buyer.
 
According to Jeff Cooper, the nonprofit organization’s chief financial and operations officer, the unsolicited offer was simply too good to pass up. “We had no intention of selling it,” Cooper explained. “But the person made an offer, so we spoke to our attorneys, got an appraisal, found out the offer was very reasonable and we decided to sell the building.”
 
While Cooper was unable to provide any information on the purchaser and prospective plans for the circa 1800 property, he emphasized that the shop’s closing did not mean ORT was abandoning Philadelphia. 
 
“We have reached out from the national office to the Philadelphia region,” he said. “We are in constant contact with them to enliven the group and work with them” on the educational, societal and vocational initiatives that have been a hallmark of ORT since it was founded in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1880 as Obschestvo Remeslenovo i. Zemledelcheskovo Trouda — Russian for “Society for Trades and Agricultural Labor” — to help teach Russian Jews employment skills. Today, according to its website, ORT is “one of the largest non-governmental educational and training organizations in the world, with activities in Israel, the Baltic and CIS, Latin America, Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.”
 
Judy Gertz understands the decision to close the shop and sell the building.
 
Gertz, a Warrington resident, served as what she described as “chairman of the store” — a volunteer position, as were most of the jobs there — said that when she and the other volunteers were informed in April that the shop would need to close by the end of July, there was no argument it was the right thing to do. “The store has been making less money over the years,” she explained. The buyer “offered them a really good price — it would take us a long time to make that kind of money” by selling items in the store. “We owned the building, so we could afford to do this” — the thrift shop — “if we paid rent, we could never afford it.”
 
Like Cooper, Gertz stressed that the closing of the shop, while a symbolic loss, won’t have a negative impact on the organization in the region. “The store is just one part of it,” she said. “The chapters are still around and the people are still involved.”
 
Those people include longtime volunteers like Nan Urrasio, a Grammy-winning musician who began volunteering with ORT in her 60s. Urrasio, who worked at the resale shop for around 10 years, did everything from paint and plaster inside the store to helping customers.
 
“There was a camaraderie built between the workers and the customers,” she recalled. “So it’s sad. It was a little gem, it was an icon, a tradition — I don’t want the ORT story to die.”
 
Based on current Center City real estate prices, Urrasio has nothing to worry about.
 

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