READING — Long before Jimmie Kramer’s Peanut Bar restaurant was the odd-man-out survivor in what has become Pennsylvania’s poorest city, decades before the newspaper across the street courted bankruptcy suitors this week, there was little Michael Leifer, carrying plates of hot dinner from his grandpop’s Prohibition-era watering hole into the newsroom of the Reading Eagle.
Michael’s shoes would crunch over peanut shells on the bar’s wood floors and head across Penn Street, a half-block from this once-red-hot manufacturing city’s downtown square. Into the family-owned Eagle he would go, up the elevator and into the swarm of desks, where journalists pounded on typewriters while saying hello. He’d set down the plates, forks, and knives, take off the tinfoil on maybe a New York strip steak or the place’s signature lemon Parmesan flounder, and leave the crew to finish the next day’s paper.
Scribes would trade the dirty plates hours later for beers at the bar, alongside cops and politicos.
Michael, now 58, was performing a ritual that may be nearing its end, as the Eagle flirts with calamitous destruction: One hometown institution propping up another hometown institution in a city where few other institutions have withstood the storm of de-industrialization.
First, this city west of Philadelphia lost its railroad. Then, much of the rest of its once-dynamite economy. Then, two years ago, it lost its heroic savior, department store legend Al Boscov, who even at age 87 was trying to rebuild this town one new Hilton hotel, one Santander Arena, at a time. Today, it is the 10th-poorest city in the United States by household median income, census estimates say. It used to be the poorest, to which locals desperately declare: “Hey, at least we’ve moved up!”
Still, Reading managed to hang on to its Peanut Bar. And its newspaper.
The Eagle’s time, however, may finally have come. On Wednesday, it accepted bids for its bankrupt assets. On Thursday, it announced that a group backed by vulture investors had submitted the only qualifying bid.
There was worry on Wednesday when I swung through this city of nearly 90,000, and its affluent suburbs in Berks County, that a pillar may soon crumble: The 150-year-old newspaper that continued to bind this bedraggled city together with stories, even as economic forces blew it apart.
Nowhere is that tension felt more acutely than right inside the Peanut Bar, age 95, a time capsule so revered that customers once chipped in to fix its wall-mounted telephone from the 1920s. Sometimes the bartender makes the phone ring just to make kids giggle. This place is where memories of Old Reading meet the hopes of New Reading.
“We’ve always wanted people to feel at home,” Michael told me as we sat at the bar with a bowl of peanuts.
A table of newspaper union leaders were holding a war-room dinner in one of the restaurant’s hard-to-find nooks as Michael showed me every cranny of the place, which spans four Penn Street storefronts.
“We still are what we’ve been," Michael said. "There have been a lot of changes in Reading, but we’ve remained exactly the same.”
Four years ago, the childless heir to the family business renovated the place. But instead of modernizing it, Michael made sure that the new bar and new oak floors from a nearby forest looked the same as ever.
“Very fortunately," Michael said with a smile, "nobody realized we had done a thing.”
I first met Michael last year after an ice hockey game at Santander Arena, a downtown redevelopment cornerstone just a few blocks away. The red-and-white-checkered tablecloths, the peanut shells on the floor, Michael waltzing from table to table to gab with customers? I had to meet him.
I introduced myself as an Inquirer journalist, and Michael vanished. He came back with a block of wood. It was a piece of the old bar. A memento he had set aside for Inquirer sportswriter Frank Fitzpatrick — himself a treasured memory from his days as a cub reporter across the street. I agreed to make the delivery.
Michael called the bankruptcy filing a “shot through the heart.” He’s worried about his business, sure, but also the reporters on up to members of the ownership family. Publisher Bill Flippin was just in for lunch on Tuesday after running into Michael at a hardware store.
The Eagle isn’t just a business; it’s a beating heart.
“I’ve done a lot of grief counseling since March 20,” said Kevin Murphy, CEO of the Berks County Community Foundation. His group is around the corner from the Nut, which is just one of many nicknames for Jimmie Kramer’s, which is another nickname for the Peanut Bar, which others just call the PB.
“The newspaper is the most visible institution in this community,” Murphy said. “We’re worried there won’t be a community source of news."
With word of MediaNews Group’s bid, such worry is real. The hedge-fund-backed company has gutted struggling newspapers across the Philadelphia suburbs with slash-and-stash-the-cash opportunism. Even before its bid was submitted, the Eagle warned the state of Pennsylvania of potentially 200 layoffs. No one expects Digital First to shutter the company, but deep cuts are considered likely.
“When you lose an icon like the Reading Eagle Co., it’s terrible to see,” Michael said. “You feel horrible for the people in it.”
People, yes — and a city that could use another hero right about now.