When Victor Ostroff closes the doors of his century-old jewelry store on Main Street in Manayunk in a couple of months, he’ll be leaving behind much more than just pendants and wedding bands.
He’ll be walking away from the home he lived in for the first four years of his life, the shop that gave him his first job as a youngster, and a family business that’s flourished on Main Street for the past 112 years.
Ostroff sent out a mailer early this week announcing that he was retiring and shutting down A.I. Poland Jewelers. He expects to close in about two months, whenever he’s sold off the inventory.
On Wednesday morning, the shop was abuzz with kids shouting and customers rushing in to make their final jewelry requests.
One concerned couple marched right up to the counter.
“This isn’t because of the robbery is it?” the man asked.
“No, no, I made this decision a while ago,” Ostroff replied.
Overcoming a crime
The man’s question was a natural one.
On the morning of March 29, Ostroff and one of his female employees were victims of an armed robbery. They were tied up in the back of the store and held at gunpoint by one man while another man stole jewelry from the front.
Both of the suspects have been arrested and Ostroff says most, if not all, of the jewelry has been recovered.
“There was a gun, it was frightening, there was a lot of blood,” Ostroff said. “But the reality was that there never was one moment where I felt I was going to die.”
The blood was from one of the suspects hitting Ostroff in the back of the head with his gun, which resulted in him having to get a few staples in his hairline.
Ostroff says the whole time he was tied up, he was thinking about how he was going to put the shop back in order after the crime. Since he didn’t feel that his life was in jeopardy, his mind automatically went into business mode.
“I was thrilled that there were certain things I could hear them rummaging in,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Good, that’s costume jewelry; if you want to take that, that’s good.'”
Ostroff said the damage could have been a lot worse, since none of the showcases were broken into. The only damage was to a phone cord, which the robbers ripped out.
An emotional decision
While the crime certainly shook him up, Ostroff says it didn’t provoke him into closing the shop. He had printed up the retirement announcement even before the robbery.
“I don’t have any children; there isn’t another generation to take over and selling the business just didn’t seem right,” he said. “It’s so linked to the family and I don’t know if anyone could run it the way we run it.”
Ostroff had planned to link his retirement to the store’s 112th anniversary in order to end on a high note and celebrate the longevity of the family business.
Unfortunately, now many people are linking the timing to the crime.
“Would it have made sense to wait ’til Christmas or wait another year?” he said. “Even if you do it at Christmas, people will still think it’s linked.”
It’s been an emotional and difficult five weeks for Ostroff and his wife. But now, with a few new safety precautions in place at the store, he wants to focus on winding the store down with a sense of celebration.
Generations of celebrations
But customers like Karoline Prosperi from Erdenheim, Pa. aren’t jumping for joy.
“I cried when I found out; my mom just told me she got the card; I couldn’t believe it!” she said while chasing after her two young daughters in the store.
Her family has been coming to the shop for more than 30 years to buy gifts, get repairs done and have jewelry made by Ostroff and his staff.
When she graduated with her masters from St. Joe’s in 2002, she had her eye on a silver beaded Tiffany’s necklace, but it was way out of her budget. So, she went to Ostroff and had a more affordable replica made. She was even able to afford the matching bracelet, which she still wears today.
“We just feel like they’re family to us,” she said. “Certain pieces that I have from here, there’s just a sentimentality tied to them.”
For Ostroff, that’s one of the most rewarding parts of this job, which he’ll miss.
“That’s one thing I’ve really treasured because you’re watching them grow and celebrate,” he said. “They’re here for communion, they’re here for confirmation, for weddings and anniversaries, maybe not every occasion but you get to watch them grow.”
It’s a perk of nurturing a business until it becomes part of the fabric of a neighborhood.
How it all started
The story began in 1899, when Ostroff’s great-great-aunt and -uncle opened A.I. Poland Jewelers. In addition to jewelry, the store boasted a mix of appliances and transistor radios. Since the couple didn’t have children, the business was passed down to Ostroff’s grandfather, then to his parents.
As with many traditional retail businesses of that time, the Ostroff family lived above the store. So, for Ostroff, the family business was always interwoven with family life. He’s spent every Christmas at the shop since he was 12, not always by choice.
“My birthday is Christmas Eve and my family was always here,” he said. “So, if I wanted to celebrate, I’d better come to the store. I guess that’s why I got in the business.”
He began at age 13, when he went door-to-door to collect money from customers who owed cash for previous purchases.
“We had our own charge accounts before all the plastic cards were available,” he said. “So, on Saturdays, we’d go into the neighborhood and everyone had a book of how much they owed. Sometimes we’d get $2, or $5 or sometimes $10.”
After a brief stint as a traveling salesman in the ’70s, Ostroff came back to work full time in ’78.
From then on, he dedicated himself to the store and the community. He served as treasurer for the Manayunk Business Association, helped to organize the Main Street Stroll, and put together a business directory to link merchants on the street.
He says his version of a mental health day is taking five minutes to sit and read the paper in the back of the store while someone else watches the front.
As for retirement plans, Ostroff says he hasn’t had time to figure that out yet.
“I’m not a person that’s gonna sit home and do nothing but I haven’t had a lot of free time to have hobbies or interests,” he said. “I just really would like to chill out for a short amount of time.”
When asked what his hopes are for the site, he said he’d love to see another retail store in its place, but adds that it’s all about what Manayunk needs at that time.
“I’d just really like for it to be successful and I hope they have the same amount of longevity that we’ve had,” he added.
As Ostroff begins to empty out his inventory, items are being offered at up to 70 percent off.
For customers like Prosperi, it’s a bittersweet bargain.
“Every good thing has to come to an end,” she said. “But where are we going to go now? It’s never gonna be the same.”