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This one-mile stretch of Philadelphia is home to 55 woman-owned businesses

The Avenue has become a sisterhood of sorts where women can swap recommendations for plumbers, power washers and OB/GYNs

Julia Grassi, who runs Miss Demeanor with her mother, Kate, in the store on East Passyunk Avenue, where women own at least 55 of the businesses.
Julia Grassi, who runs Miss Demeanor with her mother, Kate, in the store on East Passyunk Avenue, where women own at least 55 of the businesses.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Pam Zenzola gets a lot of calls from people interested in opening businesses on East Passyunk Avenue. Her last four were from prospective owners of a brewery, a hair salon, a clothing store, and a butcher shop. All were women.

"I looked around and I said, 'Wow, we really do have a lot of women who own businesses here, and the interest has not slowed down,'" said Zenzola, who heads the commercial corridor's business improvement district.

At least 55 of the shops, salons, restaurants and other businesses on the one-mile-long stretch of the avenue from Federal to Broad Streets in South Philadelphia are run by women. That's about 35 percent of the total, by Zenzola's count, a much higher percentage than citywide, where 18.5 percent of businesses are owned by women, according to a recent census survey.

"I think women like to be their own boss," said Carolyn Verdi, who has been in the wedding business for 28 years and has an accessories and dress shop on the avenue. "This is a good neighborhood, where I think there's room for a lot of different dreams. …When I was little, you came down to the avenue for everything. I think it's getting back to where it was."

In the last 10 years, the avenue has gone through a reinvention, first with a restaurant revolution led in part by female owners and chefs, then with craft-makers ushering in a handmade retail trend, and now with liquor stores, distilleries and bottle shops. They join the long-standing boutiques and bridal salons that date back 30 or more years.

The effect is a sisterhood of sorts, where women can swap recommendations for plumbers, power washers and OB/GYNs. They'll watch one another's storefronts so someone can move a car or pick up a kid from school.

"Run out of thread? I call Nicole across the street, and I'm like, 'Do you have any red thread?'" said Julia Grassi, who runs Miss Demeanor, a handmade clothing store, with her mother, Kate. "It's like our version of  'Do you have a cup of sugar?' We're always doing that."

In 2010, Grassi and her mom were unemployed and decided to go into business together. They opened a year-round clothing store in Cape May. Their second location opened two years ago in an old butcher shop on the avenue. Julia lives above the store, which sells handmade clothing, accessories, and gifts, much of it featuring pro-woman art.

The store melds past and present. A Tom's Prime Meats neon sign hangs above fair-trade dresses and women's separates. A green metal cash register from the former tenant sits near a sewing machine working on something lacy. Pink sweaters, hanging from the rusty meat hooks still lining the ceiling, can be tried on in the dressing rooms, which used to be walk-in meat refrigerators.

(There's a new butcher shop opening near the block's iconic fountain in the spring. It's owned by a woman.)

"It's a great avenue, but it was a great avenue years ago," said Lauren Buckley, who runs South Philadelphia Acupuncture. "It was just tumbleweeds and tutu shops then. Now, it's more crafts and gift shops. We're not reinventing the wheel."

East Passyunk has been a commercial artery since colonial times. In the 20th century, it became a corridor serving the largely Italian American families who had moved into the neighborhood. By the early 2000s, the neighborhood started attracting more Asian and Hispanic families.

Many of the older businesses have been passed from mother to daughter, like Mia Philadelphia, which has fitted prom-bound teenagers and bridesmaids for more than 30 years. Daughters also have started businesses alongside their mothers, like P'unk Burger, which owner Marlo Dilks opened next to her mother's children's clothing store, A Star Is Born. At one point, three generations of women in the DiRenzo family worked at and operated Tre Scalini, which opened in 1994; now, mother Franca and daughter Francesca DiRenzo-Kauffman run the traditional BYOB Italian restaurant.

Deborah Scipione has been finding young girls their First Communion gowns for 25 years at Bianca Simone, named after her mother. "We're the pioneers," she said. "At one point, East Passyunk Avenue was collapsing. It was a struggle in time."

Today, Scipione has competition from online sellers. The demographic has shifted from its largely Italian Catholic roots to a hot neighborhood for young families from different backgrounds (30 percent of residents in the area are 20 to 34 years old).

"You've been in business as long as me, you're a destination shop," Scipione said. "You rely on recommendations."

While more than a third of East Passyunk retailers are female, the city's business owners on the whole are overwhelmingly male. Philadelphia's 18.5 percent ranked it 11th out of 12 (ahead of Boston) in a recent census survey of big cities with female-owned businesses.  The city has 15.7 percent minority-owned businesses.

Nationwide, the number of female-owned businesses has increased by 45 percent in the last decade (there was a 9 percent increase among all businesses). Women are now the majority owners of 38 percent of the country's businesses, up from 29 percent.

The majority of those enterprises are small businesses, though, which are the hardest to keep afloat. While 80 percent of small businesses survive their first year, half close after five years, according to the U.S. Labor Bureau.

Women report having to fight misconceptions about their business ability held by mentors, prospective investors, or even staff and customers.

Varnana Beuria, who quit a restaurant manager job to open up her coffee, bagel sandwiches and waffles eatery, Chhaya, often gets customers who say, "Tell the owner he's got a great place here." She used to let it go. Lately she has started introducing herself.

"My natural instinct has been to kind of to fade into the background," Beuria said. "I've always been like, 'The place speaks for itself. I'm not the story here.' But I think we're in a time where if successful women aren't standing up and saying, 'Look at me, look at what I've accomplished, look at what I've had to go through in order to accomplish this,' then we're not setting the scene for the women who come after us."

For Beuria and many women on the avenue, the decision to go into business was a career pivot toward a skill or passion in an era when women feel they have more opportunities.

Elissa Kara was working at a restaurant and making handmade hats and baby clothes when the place closed and she lost her job. Shortly afterward, a shop that sold her handmade items folded. Then, her mom, who had always encouraged Kara's creative side, died of lung cancer, and she found herself mourning her mom and the types of stores they'd explore together along South Street.

"I said, 'We can't lose places like this, small handmade stores like this, they fill a real void for makers in this city,'" Kara said. So although she was unemployed with no business experience, she saw as good a time as any to take a leap. "I was also 35, with no kids, not married, and I said, 'If I'm going to try something, jump now. If I lose, I lose.'"

Despite warnings from Realtors who doubted a shop carrying "Popsicle sticks and googly eyes" could survive, she opened Nice Things…Handmade in 2010.

Eight years later, Kara's shop is filled with gifts, jewelry and accessories. She has helped usher in a "handmade" movement. Four women opened stores on the avenue after selling their work at Kara's shop. Up and down the block, storefronts have #MadeonEPA stickers in the windows to promote local handiwork.

"We're all strong-willed women," Kara said. "We all have our own visions of things, and we want to see things a certain way, but we're there in this community because of the creative environment and because of the neighborhood. It is its own character; it has a culture to it."