If you’ve ever been on Woodland Avenue, between 61st and 62nd street, then there is a good chance you have seen Smiles’ Bruce Zeiger. The Philadelphia native and current owner of Smiles’ has been running the family business for quite some time. It is located directly across from the Woodland Avenue shopping center at 6129-31 Woodland Avenue and has been a long-time staple in the community, holding down its current residence for more than 20 years. This may seem like a great deal of time, but it turns out Smiles’ (and Bruce’s) lineage goes back even farther than this.
Back in the early 1930s, Zeiger’s grandmother settled in Southwest Philadelphia after moving from their store in South Philadelphia at 27th and Oakford. Around 1970, when Bruce got to Woodland Avenue, he would go on to open his first business — Bridal Suite– which wasn’t where Smiles’ is today, but was at 6113 Woodland Ave. It was expanded into the building next door and stuck around for more than a decade, before the business was sold in the mid-eighties. However, before selling, the Zeiger family was able to acquire the building next door where they put a lady’s clothing store. They were also able to obtain another building a few doors down, where they put a linen store.
When 6129 eventually became available, it was due to it sitting for awhile after being fire damaged. After Bruce was able to secure the building, they did some rehab on it, and then decided to move both the lady’s clothing store and the linen store under one roof. This was done because, “A woman that is shopping for a blouse may want to buy a blanket. Or a woman that comes in to buy a pillow may want to buy some slacks,” Bruce explained.
At that point in time, Bruce was co-managing the store with his father. His father was in charge of the ready-to-wear lady’s clothing, while Bruce supervised the linens portion. As his father started to slow down with age, “I started stealing his space –little by little,” Bruce said as he laughed, and though this may seem harsh, Bruce enjoyed working with his father. After observing the sales of their two types of merchandise, they determined that Linens was the direction the business should go in, allowing his father to step back and eventually retire. “He was a tough task master, but he taught me well,” Bruce recalled.
During the 1970s, while Bruce was getting his first real taste of store ownership with Bridal Suite, he was also a full-time student at Temple University. Even with his rigorous academic schedule, he still managed to find the time to be on Woodland Avenue working at his store three days a week. He went on to graduate from Temple in 1973, after just three years, with his Bachelor of Science degree.
“This past year, 2019, was our 100th year of business with my family in Philadelphia,” Bruce told me, “And 80 years on Woodland Avenue.”
Throughout Bruce’s time in Southwest, he’s seen a great deal of changes that have taken place along Woodland Avenue. Noting that the composition of the avenue has changed in regards to the number of retail stores, which Bruce would credit to social media and the internet, since most people don’t have to leave their homes to shop anymore. “It was basically all shopping,” Bruce said, “you didn’t have the nail salons or the telephone stores.” Bruce recalled the avenue being flush with “legitimate” furniture stores and even a movie theater at one point. These changes that happened over time affected the amount of foot traffic his store and others along the avenue would receive.
When asked if he was worried about going out of business, like many of the other retail stores he’s seen come and go throughout the years, Bruce didn’t seem troubled by this possibility. “I think there’s always going to be a need for a certain amount of retail stores,” he said nonchalantly, “And you have a certain customer base that’s loyal to you,” he continued recalling a customer who was shopping that told him that she used to play around in the store while there with her grandmother. A great deal of his customers that have moved from the area still come back to the area to shop at Smiles’. With Bruce having been in the community for so long, he is no stranger to hearing customers recount their memories when they come to his store.
“The amazing thing to me is that Woodland Avenue has always been a ‘melting pot’,” Bruce went on to say. When his grandmother was still around, the area was mostly Jewish, Irish, and Italian people. As they gradually started to leave, they were replaced by “a wave of Asian merchants” that came in and more recently a wave of African merchants has settled into the area. Since Bruce has been around for a good deal of time, he’s been able to see the success of some of the businesses that these different waves of merchants have brought to the area. With some being able to excel and move on, while others have done well and settled into the area with their families.
Even though Bruce is around the age of retirement, he has no intention of doing so. “I like the idea that I can get up in the morning and have a destination. That I have something to do,” he said. There are neighbors and people that if they have a problem will go to him seeking guidance. From this, Bruce gets a sense of self-satisfaction, giving him further cause to come into his business everyday.
Bruce refers to Smiles’ as an “anchor.” A business that’s stable and helps bring traffic to the other businesses on the block. And if Smiles’ is the anchor, then you can think of Woodland Avenue as the ship and Bruce as the captain. Since he has been around for a good deal of time, he’s been able to acquire a few properties, with which he has rehabbed over the years so that his tenants could get their businesses started. Though Bruce refuses to rent out any of his properties just to make money. He’d much rather rent to people or merchants that will become assets to the community.
In five to ten years, Bruce hopes to be doing the same thing. He doesn’t believe the changes that that may happen over that time period will negatively impact his business, but if it does, he’s prepared to reinvent himself and Smiles to fit his customers’ needs. “If you’re a good merchant, I think you’re constantly reinventing yourself,” Bruce said.
Smiles’ has been around for a long time, and with Bruce running the helm, it is likely to stick around for an even longer time. Stop by 6129 Woodland Avenue Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. to check out Smiles’ and it’s amazing deals. During the tax season Smiles’ will have up to 50% off suggested retail prices that anyone can take advantage of. Or if you would like to stop by for advice on running a business, Bruce has a plethora of knowledge that he’s happy to share.
The Paschalville Partnership is a collaboration of organizations spearheaded by the Free Library of Philadelphia working to transform services for the community served by Paschalville Library, located in Southwest Philadelphia. Over the next year, the partnership is working with community members to make visible the primary building blocks for sustainable community development. The partnership’s work is grounded in the principles of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), which intentionally builds on the skills of local residents, the power of local associations, and the supportive functions of local institutions.