Jewish Storeowners Breathe New Life Into Old Traditions Once Found on Fabric Row

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Joanne Litz was not where you might expect when inspiration struck, though she was in a synagogue.

“I remember being at synagogue and going into a bath stall, and there was a sign about abuse against women,” said Litz, who was at Penn Valley’s Har Zion Temple that day to sell her company’s wares at a craft fair. “It really shocked me. I was like, Oh my God. Jewish men don’t do that.
That was several years ago, and since then, Litz has learned that no community is exempt when it comes to violence against women. That’s why she and husband Dennis Wolk chose the nonprofit Women Against Abuse as the beneficiary of their upcoming Fourth Friday charity event, which takes place at their store on Oct. 28.
Litz and Wolk, both Philadelphia natives, are about to celebrate 25 years in business together as co-owners of Steel Pony, a sustainable clothing and accessories company that operates out of a storefront on South Fourth Street’s Fabric Row. They came to the street a year and a half ago, after leaving their 5,000-square-foot warehouse space at Eighth and Reed, where they were headquartered for 20 years.
“It used to be Ma and Pa’s Root Beer Bottling Factory,” said Wolk of Steel Pony’s former address, as he and Litz sat and reminisced in their current digs. “It had subfloors, wood beams; it had exposed ceilings so the tar would drip down in the summer and the wind would go through it in the winter.”
Wolk and Litz loved their industrial space, where they worked hard to build a solid customer base for Litz’s one-of-a-kind clothing designs and Wolk’s handcrafted leather handbags, which they sold to stores around the country. But they had to leave when the building’s owners decided to renovate.
“That area has become really hot because of Passyunk, so they decided to rehab it, so they kicked us out,” Litz said. “The rent was so cheap that it was really hard to make that move.”
After looking in Fishtown, Kensington and on Passyunk Avenue — and working out of their house for a time with two employees and three cats — the Jewish couple learned about the Fabric Row vacancy.
Looking around the boutique today — with its racks of clothing and carefully curated decorative touches like antlers and driftwood — it’s hard to imagine it in its former incarnation, Pennsylvania Fabric Outlet.
“This whole place was all pegboard, from the front all the way to the back,” said Wolk. “From floor to ceiling there were bolts of fabric, boxes of buttons … ”
Though Litz and Wolk redecorated, they retain several traditions that once made Fabric Row “the most Jewish street in Philadelphia,” as Wolk put it.
For one thing, they do the vast majority of sewing, crafting and dying at their South Fourth Street location.
“Nobody in the city is doing what we’re doing right now,” Litz said. “Either they’re retail or they’re a studio. It’s really hard to do both.”
Litz pointed out that small-scale manufacturing is one of Fabric Row’s legacies.
“People used to make the draperies and stuff on this street,” she said. “There were a lot of tailors. There were two designers who had a place next to Essene, and they used to sew in the back and sell in the front. There’s a big history of that as well. I would love to see this street become that. It would be nice to see actual makers here.”
In addition to some old-school business practices, Litz and Wolk infuse their business with a Jewish commitment to repairing the world.
“Jewish people are much more giving in general as a customer base,” said Litz, who notes that their Jewish patrons are responsive to Steel Pony’s various charitable initiatives.
“We do this thing called ‘Give a Sh**’ where we do t-shirts, so $5 of every shirt goes to a nonprofit,” Litz said. “But in addition, I try to do something else several times during the year. So last month I did something for Living Beyond Breast Cancer — we did t-shirts for them, but we also did this event where we had a pop-up shop. This month is for Women Against Abuse. Next month we’re doing Philabundance.”
Though neither Litz nor Wolk is religiously observant, they both acknowledge the poignancy of having a Jewish-owned business on Fabric Row, and the connection they have, through heritage and deeds, with the street’s antecedents.
“Yeah, we’re in the schmatte industry,” laughed Litz, who’s worked in textiles her whole life. Before coming to Fabric Row, “There were many times I thought, ‘maybe we should open [a storefront].’ I never had the courage to do that. It wasn’t until we were forced to do something. Now I think it was the best thing we ever did. I’m really excited about this street.”
For more information or to donate to the Woman Against Abuse benefit, call 215-467-6065 or go to steelpony.com.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747