Berkenstock Store – “Berky’s” – Sinking Spring

If you grew up in Sinking Spring during the 50, 60s, or 70s you probably remember Berkenstock’s Store, or just called it, “Berky’s” or “Fern’s”*. The people who have mentioned it to me specifically remember it being a candy store and calling it Berky’s. There is absolutely no information about this place on the web, but I did some sleuthing to find some information about who ran this store. What I had was a last name, location and an idea of a timeframe of when this store was in operation.

*Apparently some called it Fern’s, I have added this info after the original release of the article

It was located on the corner of Columbia and Hull Street, 101 S. Hull Street. Just caddy-corner from the Sinking Spring School grounds, making it easy for students to walk there for candy. I found record in the 1940 census of a Berkenstock Family who lived at that address. I knew it was a lady who ran this store, so I figured it had to be one of the daughters. It ended up being Fern Berkenstock.

At first I thought it might be Ethel but my sources said it was definitely Fern. I found Ethel in her 1946 senior yearbook from Sinking Spring High. I wasn’t able to find Fern in any of the mid-late 30s Sinking Spring yearbooks. Perhaps she didn’t go to high school, not surprising or out of the ordinary, many in that time didn’t.

I was able to find that Fern passed away in 2000. Her obituary was in the April 1st, 2000 Reading Eagle. It mentions her owning the store and gave the definitive time of operations, from 1940-1986. She was married at some point and her last name changed to Eyrich.

I would love to see and share some images of Berky’s if anyone has them. Any added info would also be appreciated. People remember this place fondly and I would love to bring it back to them. If you have any memories of the store please share them in the comments.

1958 Aerial of Columbia Ave and Hull St Intersection where Berky’s operated

Penn Square History – Downtown Reading

If you hear someone refer to Penn Square, they are speaking of the 400 and 500 blocks of Penn Street with the center being 5th Street. It marks the center of downtown Reading, which used to be adorned with shops on both sides of the street. Below it’s pictured in the 1930s, when trollies ruled and the entire street was just open macadam. The center of Penn Square was a traffic circle, and traffic gave way to the trollies that ran North/South on 5th Street and East/West on Penn Street.

By the 50s-early 70s, 5th and Penn continued with the circle but made the area a little more pedestrian friendly. Traffic was directed by lights and police officers.

The Penn Square Project

By the early 70s, big plans were in the works for the Penn Square area. The city demolished almost the entire 600 and 700 blocks of Penn Street to build a massive indoor shopping mall that never came to fruition. They did however go through with the part of the plan that involved turning the entire 500 block of Penn Street into an outdoor pedestrian area. It was completed in May of 1975 at a cost of $1.6 million.

Source

Automotive traffic was cut off completely from this block and had to be re-routed around, which caused the inevitable traffic problems. This was a last-ditch effort to help businesses along Penn Street garner more foot traffic and increase profits as a result. The effort was too little too late, however, as established malls like the Berkshire had already started hammering nails into the coffin of downtown being a popular shopping destination. Perhaps it was inevitable.

Dec 31st, 1978 Reading Eagle

Downtown – The downtown continued to provide the top business stories of the year as businessmen within the city as well as surrounding communities made strides to restore the center city as a commercial and financial area. Two such projects are the Penn Square Center shown at right, and the remodeling of the northwest corner of Sixth and Penn streets by the Thomas Brothers – Eagle Photo Daniel J. Devine.

In the 80s, many buildings were developed in the 600 and 700 blocks of Penn Street to fill up the empty space left by the failed mall plans and also to attempt to bring businesses downtown. Penn Square Center was one of those buildings.

By 1990 the city decided that the square needed to be opened back up to traffic and again redeveloped the area, ripping out the pedestrian area. This was completed in 1993 and has remained this way since.

Seafood Shanty –
Mt Penn/West Lawn

The Seafood Shanty was a popular restaurant in Berks County for 23 years. It was technically a chain, with other locations being around the greater Philadelphia area and into New Jersey. The first location in Berks was opened in Mount Penn on Perkiomen Avenue. The second location was opened on Penn Avenue in West Lawn. Both were opened in the early 1970s.

The West Lawn location had previously been the White Whale, another seafood establishment. Seafood Shanty had a habit of buying up struggling local seafood joints and turning them around under the Seafood Shandy branding and management.

Reading Eagle 1976
1990 ad lists all the locations

The restaurant was highly successful until the 1990s. The owner filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September of 1990.

They remained opened and operating through the first bankruptcy. In 1993, they filed bankruptcy again, this time Chapter 7.

Reading Eagle November 1993

The West Lawn location closed sometime in 1995. The original location in Mount Penn continued on for a few more years. The last classified ad looking for potential employees ran in December of 1998. I’m not sure if there was a change of ownership or how it continued to operate, because the original owner of the chain lost possession of the restaurant after the Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The original owner, Joseph Gentile, actually ended up in some legal trouble in 1995 due to not paying almost $700,000 in state taxes. If you know who owned it or what its status was between ’93 and ’98 feel free to let us know in the comments.

Seafood Shanty had a brief revival in 2012 when a local man bought the name and rights to the restaurant and opened in Broadcasting Square Shopping Center. Over $80k worth of gift cards were sold before the grand opening of the restaurant. The TripAdvisor page is filled with negative reviews and the new owner filed for bankruptcy only a year after the hyped opening. It quietly closed shortly after with just a note on the door informing the customers it was no longer in business. That building is now occupied by another seafood restaurant called Coastal Grille.

The West Lawn Seafood Shanty building is now occupied by the New York Bagelry, which has been there since the Shanty closed its doors in 1995.

Penn Avenue/West Lawn Seafood Shanty location in 2019 – Now New York Bagelry

The Perkiomen Ave Shanty still stands as well, but is now an establishment called the Breakfast Hut.

Perkiomen Avenue/Mount Penn Seafood Shanty in 2019 – Now a “Breakfast Hut”.

Kmart – 45 Years in Berks

Kmart has been a staple nationwide big box store since the 60s. The company, originally called S. S. Kresge Corporation, dates back to 1899. It wasn’t until 1974 when it broke into the Berks County market, opening a store at the 94,500-square-foot Cumru Township location in Shillington Plaza.

According to the Reading Eagle, it featured an auto service center, a garden shop and a self-service snack bar. It shared space with a newly built Weis Market that eventually moved to a bigger site in Spring Township in 2011.

Blue Light Special

Kmart had a retail cultural phenomenon… as you may remember wandering around waiting to see what the next blue light special would be. The Blue Light Special was a sale promotion within the store for a short period within store hours only. It was advertised using a rotating blue light, in the same style a police car used, and was announced over the store public address system with the phrase “attention Kmart shoppers”, a phrase which became a pop culture reference. 

Expansion in Berks

Two more stores opened within the mid-1970s. One took over the space of a former W.T. Grant Store on Fifth Street Highway, Muhlenberg Township, in 1976. And another was opened in Exeter Township on the site of the former Mount Penn Drive-In Theater in 1977.

Fifth Street Highway Muhlenberg location after closing

At its peak in 1994, Kmart operated 2,323 discount stores and Super Kmart Center locations in the United States.

The Exeter store, which had then made another move to Shelbourne Square shopping center in 1993, was the first to go when the former Kmart Corp. filed for their first bankruptcy in 2002. Shortly after in 2004 Kmart and Sears merged. Both were struggling companies and decided to jointly sell off many of the Sears product lines, including Craftsman tools, to make ends meet.

Things were quiet for the remaining two locations in Berks for over a decade. The Fifth street Highway location was eventually closed in the summer of 2016. It was one of 68 other Kmarts to close nationwide in another attempt to cut off the profitless limbs of the failing company.

The first location in Berks would also be it’s last. The Shillington Plaza Kmart is finally on the chopping block and is set to start liquidating mid-September. It will be fully closed by the end of 2019. I took this video below in July before the news, but we all knew it was only a matter of time. You can see there was virtually no one in the store shopping.

So now we have yet another vacant big box store shell wasting space and potential community tax income. Kmart enjoyed a 45 year run in Berks, and now quietly joins the ranks of Two Guys, Pomeroy’s and other retail relics of the past.

Sources: Reading Eagle Wikipedia

Embassy Theatre – 700 block Penn Street

Historical Society of Berks County

Built on the site of the Empire Theatre. The Embassy Theatre in Reading, PA opened April 4, 1931, with the movie “Stolen Heaven” starring Nancy Carroll. It was owned by Wilmer and Vincent Corp. The Embassy Theatre was designed by Philadelphia architect William H. Lee with his associates Armand de Cortieux Carroll and Charles E. Horn. Dazzling, semi-Atmospheric Art Deco style movie palaces designed by Lee’s firm had opened in late-1930 in Norristown, PA (the Norris Theatre) and in Philadelphia (the Erlen Theatre).

image from the Passing Scene

Like the Norris Theatre and the Erlen Theatre, the Embassy Theatre was a movie palace that combined an Atmospheric style with the new decor of Art Moderne and the more lavish materials of Art Deco. Yet this theatre was even more fanciful, and could have been named ‘The Embassy of the Future’. The futuristic design of the theatre appears inspired by Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) and the German Expressionist architecture underlying that movie.

The facade was glazed and polychrome Terra Cotta from Conkling-Armstrong of Philadelphia. The oval shaped aluminum ticket booth had carved glass and a marble base. The copper marquee had a glass ceiling. As if it were a rocket, an illuminated lantern topped the 80 feet tall, copper vertical tower! More than 2,000 feet of glass tubing was used for the neon, red neon for letters, and blue and green for the rest.

The lobby’s movie poster frames were set in a wall of black marble. The foyer had copper walls with aluminum horizontal molding and a ceiling of geometric design. Stairs from the foyer led up to the auditorium’s rear loges. A main lounge was on the lower level. Every last detail was Art Deco, including furniture, oval mirrors, drinking fountains, telephone booths, chandeliers and carpet.

The most amazing feature of the Embassy Theatre was in its 2,246 seat Atmospheric style auditorium, which used rolling metal gates instead of a stage curtain! Instead of the curtain, a metal grille with rolling gates was provided from two tons of carved wood, steel track, and steel draperies. Six grille gates with Art Deco style carvings slowly opened in series. The setting represented an aluminum gateway and arch on a terraced lawn. Silhouettes of tall tree tops faintly illuminated in the shadows of the night appeared in the distance.

image from the Passing Scene

In place of the usual stage, a green terrace rose from the auditorium floor with stone steps, such as might be used in ascending from a sunken garden to the heights of an upper lawn. On the stage level, shrubbery and ornamental garden benches furnished a screen at the sides.

image from the Passing Scene

The auditorium’s side walls near the stage had large columns to accentuate the screen as the focal point. The balcony, side walls and projection booth simulated an outside garden pavilion connected with arcades. Ornamental sea horses were at the balcony pavilions and front. The domed ceiling had a deep blue sky effect curving down behind the garden gates, and with the tall pillars and lights gave the impression of a still greater vista beyond. On the ceiling, stars twinkled, and there were moving clouds.

image from the Passing Scene

There was a section for the hard of hearing, with ear phones.

Source – CinemaTreasures.org

Click to Enlarge

The Embassy Theatre was damaged by fire on March 16th, 1970. It was was demolished on Nov. 10th, 1972 for the Penn Mall, which was never built.

Currently, the DoubleTree Hilton Hotel sits on the site of the former Embassy Theatre.