Erich Weiss is a mensch. His grandfather John M. Taxin - late co-owner of Walnut Street's legendary Old Original Bookbinder's restaurant, who started life as a huckster selling produce from a horse-drawn wagon - also was a mensch.
Don't take it from me. Just look at the ring Weiss had made from an Indian-head nickel his grandfather left him: "Mensch," it says.
It is a small part of the long story that Weiss - advertising guy-turned-documentary filmmaker-turned-curator - has hung on the walls of the Independence Seaport Museum in a new exhibition called "Hucksters: The Tumult of Dock Street."
"I have undisclosed amounts of storage spaces filled with God knows how much ephemera from the days of Dock Street and the heyday of Bookbinder's," says Weiss, 42. "I've got to do something with it."
The show, which runs until February, examines the bygone life of the street's origins as a produce market, from its earliest days to the mid-19th century (when it was, says Weiss, "the nerve center of the city's business and mercantile life") to its winding down in the late 1950s in the face of urban renewal.
Along with artifacts from Weiss' own collection, he has wrangled new works from some of Philly's best Pop-punkish artists (Thom Lessner, Adam Wallacavage, Hawk Krall) that are inspired by the age-old skill of street salesmanship.
"Hucksters" has allowed Weiss to dip into his family's storied past as well as the city's (Bookbinder's was as close to Sardi's or the Brown Derby - a see-and-be-seen celebrity and political hangout - as Philly has ever had). It touches on a lot that made this town gritty and great, before it got all gentrified.
"My grandmother always said that my grandfather's real passion was his days in the Dock Street market, the hustle, the noise, the deals. . . . He loved it," says Weiss of Taxin's life before he took over Bookbinder's in 1945.
The towering seafood salon was a five-story behemoth with two floors of seating, two kitchens, banquet halls, a ballroom, and "three additional floors of storage" filled to the brim with "over 100 years of photos, drawings, equipment, signage; some junk, some priceless - in my eyes," says Weiss.
All this stuff, to say nothing of his memories and training as a onetime bartender ("I did every job imaginable at Bookies"), became crucial when Weiss was contacted by José Garces, the Philly restaurateur who recently moved into the long-vacant Bookbinder's space with his new cocktails-and-seafood concept, the Olde Bar.
Weiss - co-owner of Philly's WeHolden Creative Agency and maker of such documentary films as Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry and John Legend: Live at the High Line - met Garces when they filmed a television pilot for a show that never materialized. The 125 Walnut St. restaurant property had been sold to developers, but the Bookbinder's name and its intellectual property had not. So not long after their pilot, Garces accessed the property and contacted Weiss and WeHolden to "develop the concept of Olde Bar, hearkening to the oyster-saloon days of my grandfather," who died in 1997 at 90, says Weiss.
He lent Garces old photos and ephemera, and he developed Olde Bar's cocktail program. "New drinks are based off classics - riffs, experiences, and stories from 'growing up Bookbinder's,' " says Weiss, "along with my personal favorite, the '5th grand child.' It's somewhat bitter and somewhat sweet - like me."
When sifting through the belongings of John M. Taxin - or rather, Morris Taxin ("my grandfather added the 'John' to sound more Irish"), Weiss happened on a Philadelphia Bulletin article from the late 1950s, when the Dock Street Market was to be demolished by the Old Philadelphia Development Corp. and redeveloped as the Society Hill Towers area.
"The title read: 'The Tumult of Dock Street Will Soon Die' and it chronicled its early pre-Revolutionary days of Dock Creek to its progression to produce market hub of the 1950s," says Weiss, pointing out a quote from the elder Taxin: "You die with your shoes on at Dock Street." Weiss loved that line and became fascinated with the market's culture.
"These were rough guys - a lot of tough Jewish and Italian Horatio Alger types that looked into your eyes when they talked to you. Or hollered. None of this passive aggressive texting, nonconfrontational B.S. that's prevalent now. You knew where you stood with these guys - they hustled hard and lived hard on the cobblestones of Dock Street."
In addition to studying his grandfather's stash, he pored over Temple University's Urban Archives to create an exhibition that follows the transformation of noxious Dock Creek, which was filled in and became Dock Street, from 1700s tavern respite of pirates and sailors to bustling mercantile center in the 1800s, through the hucksters' 20th-century heyday, to its demolition to make way for Society Hill Towers and 1-95.
Weiss then contacted a bunch of his Philly artist pals, told them stories, sent them Harry Kyriakodis' 2011 book Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront, and turned them loose to create their own market images and artifacts.