Sines of the Times
A Quakertown five and dime celebrates 100 years of prosperity and struggle
by J.F. Pirro

In 1952, Arthur Harr commissioned six postcards of Quakertown scenes to sell at Sines 5 & 10, his age-old, all-purpose store on West Broad Street. He bought 74,500 postcards.

Once sold three for a nickel, then three for a quarter, they’re $1 each today at Sines, though they sell for more in local antiques shops and on eBay. Still, 13,000 postcards remain. Only one of the six sold out, the Richland Friends Meetinghouse. Along with Sines—which celebrates its 100th anniversary in August—the two are few of the only remaining mainstays of a bygone era.

The postcards also feature Licking Run Creek in Memorial Park, but Bill Harr, Arthur’s son and successor at Sines, says it’s virtually dry. Quakertown High School on South Seventh Street is now an elementary school. The post office then at Fifth and West Broad Sts. moved out of town and is now a dentist’s office. As a kid, Harr swam in Tohickon Creek, but he wouldn’t today. The last view, the Karlton Theatre, is the Karlton Café.

At Sines, the postcards still sell from the same wire racks on the cellar door. Not much has changed for Bill, his wife Marlene, their son Bill Jr. and daughter Linda Fox and three grandchildren, the fifth generation, though penny candy isn’t a penny anymore. It’s cost two cents.

There’s still a huge Hires Root Beer tap in working order. Coffee mugs—each representative of a regular customer—droop from pegs for the length of the 23-stool lunch counter. Bill Jr. opens every morning except Mondays, his off day. He met his wife, Gail, at Sines. They were both employees.

The time warp is replete with a collection of display-only Quakertown memorabilia and antiques, old store photographs and posters—one advertising 10-cent milkshakes—a 1916 bill of sale and 230 suspended model airplanes.

While the Harrs can find less and less affordable merchandise, and there’s little back-up stock—unlike the 1950s and ‘60s which still has Marlene pondering an extra large supply of size-12 women’s underwear they inherited—the store survives, even with 11 strip malls within a five-mile radius.

Once, the family bought direct from toy giants such as Hasbro, Milton Bradley, Tonka and Plasticville, and took advantage of membership in 13 different mom-and-pop buying syndicates. Now, just one buying syndicate remains, Variety Distributors Inc. The last HO train set Bill Sr. considered required a $10,000 order. The Harrs have become more creative and thrifty. “The Internet has helped,” Linda says.

Rather than call it longevity, Bill Sr., who sits two counter stools away in a red shopkeeper’s apron, calls it stupidity that’s kept Sines open. Linda calls it Pennsylvania Dutch stubbornness.

Howard B. Sine, Bill’s maternal grandfather, first opened as a home-furnishing store across Broad, then moved in 1926. When Sine died in 1945, followed by his wife in 1952, their daughter and son-in-law, Theresa and Arthur Harr, carried on. Bill and Marlene, both 78, bought the store in 1974, then added a third space (and address), dubbed “The Other Side,” in 1976.

Once, there were eight registers and 31 employees after the first 1932 expansion, which added the lunch counter, soda fountain and ice cream. A more industrial Quakertown sent factory workers three-deep to the lunchtime counter. Today, from-scratch breakfast and lunch is still available, with specials scrawled on the mirror.

“This a business,” Linda says adamantly, “and we want to stay in business,” but Marlene says that’s only been possible because they’ve invested their own money to balance the books.

Even in 2006, instead of the current anniversary countdown in the storefront window, the Harrs hung S.O.S. signs: Save Our Store. That summer, Broad Street was closed for repairs. Business was already spiraling downward. Taxes, electric and everything else skyrocketed. “Then, the recession hit,” Marlene adds.

But the S.O.S. spiked business. Volunteers asked to help. “What it told us is that it matters to people that we’re here,” Linda says.

For the centennial, celebrated Aug. 10 and 11, Sines had a barbershop quartet and other on-site entertainment, giveaways, lunch specials, balloons, magnets and cotton candy.

The sticky stuff sparks Linda’s first Sines’ memory—standing on the lunch counter step and looking up to see all the gum. Then, her father kneels down to check. “None,” he reports. “I guess no one chews gum anymore either.”

In the end, the reigning patriarch admits to his pride. “I’m not going to retire, I can tell you that,” Bill Sr. says. “Even if we do close the store, I’m still going to come in here, stand in the window and wave at people.”