Old-timers in most neighborhoods lament the loss of the three movie theaters, six bakeries, several clothing stores and hardware stores that thrived back in the day. While many neighborhoods' business corridors are shells of their former selves, some still present a nice variety.
Walking about Brookline Boulevard the other day, I was impressed by its sweep. It goes on and on and has lots of stores and shops, several that are unique.
Pitaland is the prize. Joe Chahine and his family have operated the bread factory/retail store for 39 years, and it is a bona fide destination.
"Yesterday I had seven customers from Morgantown," he said. "Before that, we had people drive up [four hours] from Charleston" West Virginia. "We get people from all over, and we ship all over on Mondays, mainly to Southern states."
The Chahines are Lebanese-Americans and they carry a vast array of Middle Eastern groceries besides making pita that they sell in-store and to dozens of area restaurants.
Donna Chahine Tweardy, Joe's daughter, took me into the factory, where pillows of pita were floating along on a conveyor belt as silently as clouds. They just had the new machine installed, and it is sweet. The dough makers on the other end drop dough balls onto the belt as it heads through a molten tunnel. In its 30-second ride through hell, each dough ball puffs into a pillow and comes out the other end for its ride into a bag.
Out in the store, shoppers are putting fava beans, olives, pomegranate juice, carob molasses and bulghur wheat into their carts. There's pickled thyme, pickled turnips, tamarind juice, orange blossom water, almond syrup,many kinds of olive oil, including Spanish. Joe grows a bounty of fresh produce in his garden in Bethel Park and sells some of it at the store.
The Chahines also sell feta cheese, Middle Eastern pastries, sausages, grape leaves, 10-pound bags of basmati rice, dried apricot paste, pitted pressed dates,dry beans and lentils and more mundane groceries, such as Heinz tomato ketchup.
Brookliners are lucky to have Pitaland. They're also lucky to have a shoe repairman.
Vincent Mazza's in his 50th year on the boulevard selling and repairing shoes. He said he thought there are "22 of us [repairmen] left" in the Pittsburgh area.
"I have customers since they were little kids," he said. "I'll do this for a while longer, long as I have my health."
He wasn't busy the other day. Summer's a slow season. He had an old movie on in the back.
"One time, Brookline had four shoe repairmen," he said. Vincent is 80 and looks 65. He and his wife raised two children on his income from the shop. "The problem with shoes is the same with dry cleaning," he said. "You hope people will remember to pick them up."
Out on the sidewalk, I noticed boxes of courtesy doggie poop bags on several posts. How civilized is that? I haven't seen courtesy doggie poop bags posted in any other neighborhood. Brookline's dog owners are lucky.
Further down the street, Michael Davin was headed into one of two banks on the boulevard. I told him I thought Brookline's business district is terrific.
"Imagine what it used to be," he said, naming all the businesses that aren't there anymore. He did allow that his neighborhood has "one of the best bakeries in the city."
I proceded to the Party Cake shop, a 40-plus-year institution where Donna at Pitaland said "everyone gets their birthday cakes." Brookline also has Kribel's Bakery, another long-time fixture.
Brookline has a Carnegie Library branch, a laundromat, a cozy-looking little pub with a patio open onto the sidewalk, a pasta place, two pizza shops, a wine shop, a photo studio, two hair-care places, two shops that do alterations, a couple of chiropractors, a dry cleaner, a frame shop, a Chinese restaurant, a Greek restaurant, a beer distributor, an ice cream store, a florist, three places to get a fake tan and a place to get tattoos. The boulevard has a few vacant storefronts, and if I lived there, I would complain that there aren't enough restaurants, and I'd wish for some fool to open a bookstore.
But as business districts go, Brookline's is one for lots of us in more depleted neighborhoods to envy.