by Lou Mancinelli
If there is a matriarch of the Avenue, it just might be Martha M “Marty” Smith. If you called her this, she would likely brush off the comment with a quaint and humble eloquence that could remind you of your grandmother refusing help in the kitchen.
Marty was born and raised in Chestnut Hill and for 67 years has worked at the top of the Hill in a card and gift shop. She started working at the shop when she was 22 and later purchased it in 1960 (currently at 184 Evergreen Ave.) and named it Martha M Smith Gifts. She was thus a business owning female decades ago and thus something of a pioneer.
For years her store has been a local hub. It’s a place where friends happen to be customers. A place where people shopped because the lady at the register made them feel very much appreciated. It’s like a bar without the booze. People go for company and comfort. They stop in just because.
The store will close in mid-April. When the Local interviewed Smith and her daughter, Gail, on Saturday, March 30, it happened to be Smith’s 89th birthday. Second generation customers as well as local merchants stopped in to visit Marty, a common occurrence during her almost-seven decades at the top of the Hill.
Victoria Mason-Ailey, who commutes to New York City for work every day, was one of those people. Mason-Ailey was raised in Chestnut Hill, and her father, Sam Mason, used to frequent Smith’s store and bring his daughter with him. He shopped there for “not a few years,” said Mason-Ailey, but for “30 or 40 years.” When Mason-Ailey gave birth to a daughter, she and her father stopped at the shop on the way home from the hospital before lunch.
Deborah Weiner, owner of The Delphine Gallery at 8435 Germantown Ave. for 16 years, was saddened by the news. She described the way Smith operated her business and conducted herself as “simple … vital and beautiful. And personal.”
All day long friends, who also happened to be customers, stopped in with cards and flowers, chocolate and other small gifts for Smith. She talked about what a great day it had been. She had her hair done the day before. She joked that it was for our interview.
“I really could stay here until I’m 100,” said Smith, a fiery and gentle woman with clever eyes full of white and a head full of bountiful white hair like comforting clouds of wool.
But the rising costs of running a small shop in the face of an economy still climbing out of a recession have proved too difficult to continue to manage. Couple that with a younger generation that sends fewer cards via the U.S. mail with the recent installation of the Philadelphia Parking Authority parking kiosks — something, according to Gail and her mother, that happened without informing local merchants — and you see the final hacksaw that has felled this Hill institution.
“I know things change and they have to change,” said Smith’s daughter Gail, about the kiosk situation, “but this hasn’t been for the better … but we’ll still be around.” Many Hill merchants have suffered from the installation of the kiosks and from what they have heard from shoppers, they fear it will continue.
But let’s leave that aside because this story is about Marty Smith. “It’s all about L-O-V-E-,” Smith said, spelling it out. “Everything I did I did because I loved it.”
Smith attended John Story Jenks School and Germantown High School. When she graduated high school in 1942, the same year she married her husband Russ, she had already been working at Kilian Hardware on the Avenue since she was 16.
When she was 22 she started to work at the gift shop. It was then located at 8510 Germantown Ave. In 1960 she purchased the shop from Evelyn Daniels. Twenty-six years ago, in 1987, it moved to its current location at 184 Evergreen Ave., fronted by a charming courtyard.
While she raised her two children, Gail and Jon, who attended The Stevens School and Chestnut Hill Academy, respectively, in the 1960s, she didn’t work full-time at the store. It was staffed by five people. Being a mother was Smith’s first priority. She started working full-time when her children became adults.
Years ago the Avenue was lined with various boutiques and dress shops, according to Smith. There was Rita Coyne, The Deb Shop, which closed in 2000 after 55 years on Germantown Avenue, and Dorothy Bullitt, where The Children’s Place used to be.
When Smith moved her store out of its Germantown Avenue location, she received a call from the Dwyer family (of Dwyer oil), who wanted Smith to move into the Evergreen Avenue location, which they owned. It wasn’t the same as being on the Avenue, but it wasn’t too far either, less than a minute’s walk.
The relocation, driven by higher rents, meant moving into a smaller space as well. Over the years Smith carried various gifts, like trinkets and jewelry, in addition to holiday cards. The quantity of her inventory lessened, but the quality remained. On the Saturday of our interview the shelves, some of them 80 years old, had blank spaces like missing teeth.
When Martha M Smith Gifts closes something vital along the Hill will have disappeared. “It breaks my heart,” Smith said.
“There would be no empty stores” on the Avenue if business owners “behaved the way Marty Smith behaved,” said Marie Rankin, a neighbor, who recalled when she needed a needle and thread, Smith helped her out. It’s those small things that made a big difference.
“Marty IS Chestnut Hill,” said Rankin. When the store closes, Chestnut Hill “will never be the same.”
For more information call 215-247-2323.