Homestead's Levine Brothers store closes, but not its service center (2022)

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Homestead's Levine Brothers store closes, but not its service center (3)
Homestead's Levine Brothers store closes, but not its service center (4)
Homestead's Levine Brothers store closes, but not its service center

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

By Linda Wilson Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Levine Brothers Hardware was "going out of business" for eight weeks. Though the liquidation sale ended Saturday, the shop will continue to be a presence on Homestead's main street.

Homestead's Levine Brothers store closes, but not its service center (5)Homestead's Levine Brothers store closes, but not its service center (6)
Homestead's Levine Brothers store closes, but not its service center (7)

Brothers Lawrence, left, and Stanley Levine in their Levine Brothers Harware Store. Their going-out-of-business sale ended Saturday, closing the retail business, but Stanley will continue to operate the service center. (Tony Tye/Post-Gazette)

The business, which began in 1922, has soldiered on through the Great Depression, a devastating 1947 fire, the 1980s shutdown of Mon Valley steel mills, the closing of many neighboring storefronts in the once-prosperous Eighth Avenue business district and competition from big box and building supply stores at The Waterfront.

The family-owned business, at 337 E. Eighth Ave. since 1960, survived all of those challenges and more. Ultimately, the relentless march of time sparked the going-out-of-business sale.

Lawrence Levine, the brother who always wears a bow tie and usually sports a mustache, has decided he is ready to retire after 77 birthdays and 55 years on the job.

But is he actually retiring? And if so, when?

"My brother originally hoped to be out by July 25," said Stanley Levine. "That's the birthday of his wife, Claire. Now he's telling people he'll be around till the end of the year. I can't tell what's on his mind."

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Asked when he will actually retire, Lawrence Levine said, "When I get my work done. I figure at the end of the year. I had fun."

Lawrence Levine, who lives in Oakland, plans to remain active in the Homestead Economic Revitalization Corp. and the Mon Valley Initiative. Both groups work to revitalize former mill towns.

And that's about all Lawrence Levine would say in an interview. He turned to his younger brother, Stanley, and said, "I thought we agreed that you would handle this."

Stanley Levine, who lives in Squirrel Hill, expects to work through the end of the year and beyond.

"I don't want to retire," he said. "You are as old as you feel." He doesn't feel old at 75, and he's been working a mere 53 years.

The brothers are actually shutting down their retail business, for the most part, but Stanley will continue operating the service center that long has drawn customers from well beyond the Mon Valley.

They have eight employees and expect to keep most of them on the payroll. The rookie has been on the job six years and the most senior employee for 55 years.

Window screens are a big part of the draw. Levine Brothers repairs them and sells custom-made replacement screens. They will continue to reglaze old windows, cut keys, sharpen lawnmower blades and install hot water tanks. They'll also continue with their small machine shop, which includes repairing lawn mowers and chain saws.

"I still hope to sell some plants out front," Levine said, referring to the flats of flowers and vegetables that are a familiar Eighth Avenue sidewalk decoration each spring and early summer.

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He may continue to sell bulk vegetable seeds because "people come a long way for that. We can ID little niches that there is a demand for."

He's looking forward to reduced hours and two-day, work-free weekends.

"My brother and I worked six days a week forever," Levine said, which generally meant about 54 hours per week.

With the liquidation sale over, Stanley Levine expects to be open from 9:30 a.m. until 3 or 4 p.m. weekdays.

"We will be closed on Saturdays and we never opened on Sundays. Maybe we will have more hours in the spring. We are feeling our way and will fine-tune as we go along."

Lawrence and Stanley Levine grew up in Squirrel Hill, the only children of Harry E. and Cecile G. Levine.

Stanley Levine described his father as "a real dynamo." His parents came to the United States from Lithuania and Poland in the early 1890s.

Harry and his brother, A.W. "Chinners" Levine, had athletic talent that propelled them out of the working class and into the University of Pittsburgh. Stanley and Lawrence Levine's father won a track scholarship and their uncle played basketball there. However, both of their college careers were cut short by World War I.

The first Levine Brothers hardware store opened in 1922 in Duquesne rather than Squirrel Hill "because they went where the need existed," Stanley Levine said. "My father sensed that one store would not sustain two families. When Nebo Brothers in Homestead went bankrupt in 1935, my dad and brother bought it. It was at 324 East Eighth Ave. That store did well, too, until we had a disastrous fire in 1947. We had a good landlord. He rebuilt the building and it reopened in August 1948."

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Lawrence Levine studied electrical engineering at Carnegie Tech, but his college career was curtailed by World War II. Stanley graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business.

"I started here in 1950 as a well-grounded businessman and Lawrence always handled the mechanical end of the business."

Their uncle's Duquesne store did well until the late 1950s or early 1960s "when we lost the building to eminent domain in some kind of redevelopment program. The building was razed."

Meanwhile, the family had developed a shopping center in West Mifflin, "so our uncle moved his hardware store there and was successful for many years." The family still owns the Duquesne Village shopping center on Homeville Road.

"Business was especially good during the war" when mills in Homestead and surrounding towns were supplying steel for World War II. "After the war everyone was building houses, the steel mills were still booming and business was very good," Levine said.

Their father was only 57 when he died of Hodgkin's disease in 1952. The sons carried on with the business.

In 1960, the Levine Brothers store moved to the present location. "To Lawrence's credit, he thought this would be a better location. It had been a 5 and 10 store. We had a wonderful landlady, Mrs. Herron. We didn't buy this building until about 10 years ago, when she died."

The long-term survival of a small family business "is a bit of the survival of the fittest," Stanley Levine said. "Other hardware stores closed in the mid- and late 1970s and we got their customers."

After steel mill closings and local economic downturns in the 1980s, "business was not as good as it had been but it was still profitable. We didn't start hitting the speed bumps until the mid-'90s. Maybe if we had been younger and more ambitious we might have done better" against competition from national chain stores.

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Lawrence and Claire Levine have three children and seven grandchildren. Stanley and Patricia have four children and eight grandchildren.

None is involved in the family business "because Lawrence could not assure them there would be a viable future for them."

For the past 25 years the brothers have done their part to help another small, family-owned business.

Every working day they eat lunch at Michael's diner, directly across the street from their own business.

"But they never eat together," said Kouhla Manolakis Goughnour, who with her mother operates the diner that her late father opened 25 years ago. "Ask them how two brothers get along so well for so long."

Stanley Levine had the answer: "Our mother, Cecile, was a very astute, sharp lady. Early on she explained that the way two brothers get along is to have two wives who get along. And that's what happened. Our wives are best friends to this day."

Though Cecile never worked in the family business, she had a financial interest as well as a natural interest in how her sons were faring.

"My mother and I were almost joined at the hip. Until she died in 1992, I would talk to her daily on the phone. She called at 10 after 11 each morning. On several occasions she would say, 'I don't like the way you and Lawrence get along. We are going to talk.' And we would and it would be settled," Stanley Levine said.

"It's hard to believe that it's winding down. I have heard a lot of nice comments, including things I was not expecting. We really cherish what we have had here all these years."

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Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.

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