Side by Side


_DSC4049Birmingham’s past and future are inextricably bound.

Written and photographed by Zade Shamsi-Basha

 

The face of downtown Birmingham is changing. Unless you’ve been living under a rock in Greystone*, you’ve seen countless national publications detail the city’s rapid shift from a place to get gas on the way to the beach to a regional cultural destination. However, while many innovators are opening shop, surging the city into modernity, there are countless mainstays from eras past that see a place for themselves in the new downtown landscape. These two classes of businesses are often neighbors. This natural occurrence has fostered one of the most interesting side effects of the city center’s transformation: dozens of eccentric and incredibly cool pairs of neighboring businesses. And, as evident by civic throwbacks to the city’s prosperous past such as the Rotary Trail, Railroad Park, and the newly announced Powell Avenue Steam Plant, Birmingham’s past and future are inextricably bound. These quirky, almost ironic, juxtapositions, found all over town, provide a frozen frame of Birmingham in the midst of a massive cultural shift, and remind us of its newfound, yet serendipitously timeless, identity.

 

BALDONE/MAMANOES 

_DSC3606Any store that can say it fitted Paul “Bear” Bryant for one of his first suits can claim a spot in history as one of Alabama’s most legendary clothiers. Seventy-three-year-old Butch Baldone, who has owned Baldone Tailors and Alterations for more than 50 years, still remembers the day he fitted the great coach for a suit, and the subsequent years he served as his bodyguard. “He never wanted anyone to know that he had a bodyguard, and he especially didn’t want anyone to know it was me,” Baldone jokes, remarking on his frame compared to that of Bryant. The Baldone family has been operating the Second Avenue North location since 1968. The original Fifth Avenue store, however, was first opened in 1935. The shop’s wood panel walls and large rubber tree (which became a permanent fixture of the business when its roots grew through the bottom of the pot into the building’s foundation decades ago) are unmistakable signs that you are in the special, almost esoteric place that Alabama men have bought their suits for generations.

When first stepping next door from Baldone’s into Mamanoes Grocery Shop, one has a hard time deciding whether they are in a store that is four or 40 years old. A rustic wine cellar and vintage signs are not typical finds in today’s urban markets. Once you take a look at what’s _DSC3704for sale, however, there is no question that the shop is as contemporary as the bars across the street. This boutique staple shop sells the most hip and healthy products you can find outside of Trader Joe’s. With its own line of specialty kale juices served in mason jars, this delightful shop is the small town general store of the booming Second Avenue North Loft District. Antonio Boyd, the owner, considers Baldone to be one of the district’s greatest assets. “He treats me like one of his sons,” Boyd says of his neighbor.

Despite their vastly different businesses and customer bases, their relationship is collaborative and beneficial. This pair of adjacent shops serves as evidence that when an urban area modernizes, everyone, even the historic mainstays, stands to benefit.

 

BIRMINGHAM APOTHECARY/METRO PRIME

_DSC3549If one asks the question, “Where is the nearest apothecary?” he or she can expect strange looks and directions to the nearest old folks’ home. In other words, a likely answer is not Five Points South, the hip district known as one of Birmingham’s top nightlife and culinary destinations. However, tradition and modernity collide, as they do across the revitalizing downtown area, at The Birmingham Apothecary. This old-time pharmacy was originally opened in 1914; however, it was relocated to its current location in 1990. With the relocation came the modern necessities that a contemporary pharmacy must have, but the owners worked to maintain its historic Old South Pharmacy vibe.  Donned with plenty of American flags and even more small oddities, this relic of Birmingham’s past seems preserved in time as it serves as one of the main pharmacies in the Southside neighborhood.

_DSC3484Metro Prime Steakhouse has been directly across the street from Birmingham Apothecary for nearly three years. Executive Chef Warren Weiss, who trained at Culinary Institute of America in NYC and then under Frank Stitt for six years, strives to push the envelope on what a traditional steakhouse can offer. He understands the staples that each steakhouse worth its salt must have; however, nearly everything on the menu, from Worcestershire sauce to bacon, is prepared in house, from scratch. Weiss takes pride in being able to offer traditional fare with metropolitan flair downtown, which has had a dearth of true steakhouses for decades.

The combination of a 100-year-old apothecary and a state-of-the-art modern steakhouse is certainly a rarity, one that can only be found in a city that can call itself both Old and New South.

 

IMPERIAL FORMAL WEAR/IMPERIAL CLEANERS

_DSC3156The Tombrella family has owned and operated business in Woodlawn for nearly 100 years. Early this year, Kristina Tombrella continued her family’s legacy in the community by opening Imperial Formal Wear. Now in its fourth generation, the family line of businesses has experienced nearly everything the city collective has experienced. KKK bombings, government imminent domain takeovers, armed robberies, and economic blight, accompanied by a race of affluence to the suburbs, have all affected the family and their businesses, much in the same way that they affected countless others around the city. “We’ve weathered the storm,” says Ronnie Tombrella, current owner of Imperial Cleaners and Wash Whirl Laundromat, about his family’s resilience and dedication to remain in Woodlawn.

_DSC3284He feels a connection to the surrounding community. His actions reflect his sentiment: When the Piggly Wiggly located across First Avenue North closed two years ago, and the community became a food desert, he began selling groceries out of his laundromat. “Residents come in and thank me for staying in Woodlawn after everyone else left,” he recalls as he watches Candy, an employee of 14 years, ring up a customer for a head of lettuce. The family’s commitment to fill the needs of the surrounding community has spawned four separate business ventures.

Their eclectic mix of laundry, groceries, bridal wear, and dry cleaning are seen as an anchor in the renewing, historic neighborhood of Woodlawn.

 

*No offense to our friends in lovely Greystone. The wordplay, however, was simply too enticing.

 

 

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