The first thing Abe ordered at Paul’s Pizza was a tuna hoagie with everything. “I said go crazy – lettuce, banana peppers, onions, tomatoes...” The chunky tuna with a mess of topping on a chewy Italian roll impressed him; it was a hoagie that merited a new lunchtime habit for the graying gentleman who’s been selling diamonds on a small street in Philadelphia for 37 years.
Jewelers’ Row (on Sansom between Seventh and Eighth Streets and on Eighth between Chestnut and Walnut Streets) is the oldest diamond district in the country. Jewelry makers and appraisers have been doing business there since the late 1800s. Abe commutes from New York City to sell his imported diamonds and gemstones to several jewelers on the block. He eats lunch on Jewelers’ Row almost every weekday.
Much like the street outside, the interior at Paul’s Pizza feels decidedly stuck in the early 80s. A glowing menu above a ketchup-red plastic counter advertises Pepper-Mushroom Steak and Chicken Steak Florentine (among 36 other steak variations). There’s a list of burgers, melts, and hoagies, a flounder platter, and the namesake pizza and stromboli. Prices have been modified over the years and the fading black numbers are barely legible.
Abe sat down at a narrow table with his hoagie and lemon tea Snapple, and offered to cut a section of the sandwich for me to try. He’d had a couple pieces of Philly pretzel with honey mustard earlier, he explained, “That’s how I can share with you.” He sawed at the bread with a plastic knife.
I guessed he’d been killing time with a pretzel excursion because, as he told me, the diamond business on Jewelers’ Row these days is slow. Abe blames the Internet for the downturn in sales over the past ten years. “And extra money doesn’t go to jewelry anymore - people buy clothes and electronics,” he said.
Back in the early 80s, when Abe moved to New York City from Iran, it was a promising industry. A couple of his cousins were already buying diamonds from Israel (which is still one of the world’s biggest diamond producers, alongside Belgium and India) to sell to buyers on Jewelers’ Row. They were making good money.
“We – the guys who come from New York – own this street,” Abe said, gesturing to include a gathering of fellow city commuters eating at a nearby table. Whatever happens in the industry, the Philly jewelers are dependent on the New Yorkers’ importing businesses.
“We eat them for breakfast,” he said, and wiped the corner of his mouth with a paper napkin.
But by the time he’d finished his hoagie, Abe’s confidence had waned. “If I had a chance to pull everything out I would,” he said solemnly. He worries that the future of the diamond industry isn’t promising.
The future of Jewelers’ Row itself is in question too; a local developer has demolition and construction permits for a 16-story residential tower on the 700 block of Sansom Street. The preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is working to attain historic protection for the five buildings just east of Paul’s Pizza that would be demolished in the developer’s proposal. (You can sign their online petition here.)
For now, Paul’s Pizza is safe, preserving its own piece of history and providing a gathering place for a few not-so-busy businessmen.