Thursday, January 23, 2014

A fond farewell to SOLS of Ambridge


Sol's Store ad, Bridger yearbook, 1969
The address under the ad is wrong;
at the time, Sol's was at 562 Merchant Street, not 526

SOLS of Ambridge is one of the few remaining old, family-owned businesses on Merchant Street, but not for long. At the end of January, it will close, joining the many other former Merchant Street stores that have closed or moved. And when SOLS closes, it will be the demise of what is probably Ambridge's longest operating store.

SOLS of Ambridge,
June 23, 2013

copyright Nancy Knisley
Jim Neft, the current co-owner, says that SOLS got its start almost 100 years ago when his dad, Harry Neft, and Harry's brothers, Jim's uncles, worked for an area auto parts store, Sollys. The Neft brothers learned the business and liked it so much they decided to start auto parts stores of their own. The Neft brothers named their new businesses "Sol's" after Sollys. Eventually, the Neft family open Sol's stores around the Pittsburgh area. The Braddock Sol's was operated by Edward "Pete" Neft and Alvin "Bud" Neft; Wilkinsburg by Morris Neft and Bernard "Ches" Neft; Homestead by Joe Neft and Manny Neft; Aliquippa by Saul Neft; and Etna by Hank Rosenblum, who was married to Jim Neft's Aunt Cecelia Neft. Harry opened the Ambridge Sol's store in 1929. Jim Neft says, "I believe we were the oldest business in Ambridge. My father said that Caplan Wholesale Grocery formerly at the corner of 8th and Merchant was the only business here longer than SOLS. Since Caplan closed, we are the oldest."

Although the Sol's stores were run as independent businesses, they joined forces when buying inventory in order to negotiate lower prices by buying in volume.

About 10 years ago, Jim Neft changed the name of the store to "SOLS of Ambridge"--although he never did get around to changing the store's sign which still says "SOL's."  And the name isn't the only change in the business over the years since its founding.


Sol's ad,
Beaver County Times,
June 1, 1961
The first Sol's Ambridge store was at 633 Merchant Street and primarily sold hardware and auto parts, very popular in those days of barebones Model Ts which came without fancy extras...such as a horn. Later, when more cars were mass produced, the store's sales of auto accessories such as tires and hubcaps picked up. Sporting goods weren't yet the focus of the business, although hunting and fishing equipment sold well. Oddly, pocket watches were probably the most popular item sold by Sol's during that era.

During World War II, the great scarcity of materials needed to make bicycles and tires made them hard to find, but Sol's had a source and was able to supply bikes and tires to eager buyers. After the war was over, people had more time and money for leisure activities, so Sol's sporting goods business took off and eventually became the focus of the business. Many people who grew up in Ambridge in the '50s and '60 remember buying their sports equipment at "Sol's Sporting Goods."


In 1964, Sol's moved to 562 Merchant Street, now the shoppers' rest area. On June 25,1975, tragedy struck when a suspicious fire started in mid-afternoon in the back of the store. Sol's then moved across the street to the former J. C. Penney store at 601 Merchant Street, which Sol's had been using as a warehouse. 


Beaver County Times photo, June, 26, 1975

The text below the photo says:
Spectators gather beneath smoke-darkened skies to watch firemen battle Wednesday afternoon's fire which destroyed Sol's in Ambridge, while Ambridge fire chief Ercole Dinino (insert) looks on worriedly. Many spectators later later collected souvenirs in the form of spent gunshells, which littered the sidewalks after exploding when the fire hit the store's ammunition supply. Other photos on page A-3. (Photo by Rudy Schunk)

Beaver County Times photo, June 26, 1975

Beaver County Times photo, June 26, 1975

The text below the photo immediately above says:
Firemen pour water into Sol's of Ambridge, destroyed in a spectacular fire Wednesday afternoon. Five fire departments battled the blaze, which caused damage estimated as high as $300,000. (Photos by Rudy Schunk)
Toys weren't a big part of Sol's business until the early '70s according to Neft. "Trains. Everyone had Lionel trains. They were a big business." Later, the store's general toy business took off, but gradually, as big box specialized toy stores like Toys R Us opened, Sol's toy business become increasingly unprofitable, and Sol's got out of the toy business.

Still, Sol's had a variety of departments: small appliances; bicycles, which Neft says the store "sold by the hundreds"; auto parts; hardware; and sporting goods. Then K-Mart started offering stiff competition in sporting goods by buying a few items from manufacturers at a heavy discount and selling them as "loss leaders" to bring customers into their store. More recently, Dick's Sporting Goods arrived, so large and with such a huge inventory of sporting goods, that it pretty much killed local sporting goods stores like SOLS. As a result, rather than selling general sporting goods to the public, SOLS has primarily sold sports equipment and clothing to schools and teams for a number of years.

Jim Neft says he worked part time at Sol's during his high school and college years and began working full time in December,1972. His father retired in 1982 when he was nearing 80, and Jim Neft continued the business with his partner, Myron Watzman. Since then, Jim Neft has been involved in a variety of tasks in the operation of the business including administration, accounts receivable and payable, retail and wholesale sales, and purchasing. Harry Neft died in 1991.

Neft remembers a time when Ambridge stores stayed open Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday until 9 PM. The sidewalks would be crowded with shoppers, and the traffic on Merchant Street was so heavy, that traffic cops were needed to manage it. Now, few shoppers frequent the remaining Merchant Street businesses and even the traffic lights that once controlled many Merchant Street intersections, are no longer needed, and some have been replaced with stop signs.


Neft says the reasons for closing the store now are that his business partner, Watzman, is now 72; competition is "severe," and with online sales growing, "it's a matter of changing trends of shopping."

In July, SOLS' landlord sold 601 Merchant Street. Recently, BSN Sports, a national team and school sporting goods company, bought SOLS' business, but will operate out of a showroom in Robinson Township. SOLS is currently liquidating its existing inventory and should be done by the end of the month. The future of the old building? Neft doesn't know.

Looking back, Neft fondly recalls Ambridge's Sidewalk Bargain Days, when it would take him an hour just to put the displays on the sidewalk in front of the store. He says he and his employees would arrive extra-early in the morning and park their cars in the spaces in front of the store, so that merchandise could be put on both the store and street sides of the sidewalk and yet not block access to customers' cars.


Another fond memory--the early years of Nationality Days when the churches set up booths with authentic ethnic food. "Lately, it's more of a flea market. It's all commercial. There's no evidence of churches. People don't have time or the desire to put in the volunteer hours anymore."

Neft says, "I have many great memories of my 41 plus years here. I have been fortunate in meeting hundreds of great customers and suppliers during those years. Obviously, I will never forget the fire in 1975 that destroyed our business at 562 Merchant and the ordeal setting up operations at our current location at 601 Merchant Street. I am going to miss coming to work every day and seeing my employees. I am also going to miss talking to the other business owners. I will really miss the wonderful people who have worked at Citizens Bank
across the street. They treated me special every morning when I came in."

Even though Neft is closing SOLS, he says he has no intention of retiring. "I am currently looking for a retail sales job in the area."


Neft adds, "Thanks, everyone, for your support of our business."

Update 2/3/14: 1969 SOLS ad:

SOL'S Washington's Birthday ad,
Beaver County Times,
February 19, 1969

5 comments:

  1. nice report Nancy

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  2. Nice Report. I actually worked at Sol's twice.

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  3. That is my uncle Ercole!

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  4. Always got my Chuck Taylor All Stars at Sol's in Braddock, PA.

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  5. Wow, sad to see they're gone. I remember going there with my dad more than 30 years ago... Not much left in town anymore.

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