Business is booming in Squirrel Hill

…and it’s mostly a matter of small, unique shops

by Adam Kelly

Squirrel Hill is not the place to find a McDonalds or Wal-Mart. In fact, it’s the opposite of a corporate landscape. A seemingly never-ending line of independently-owned stores, shops, and restaurants pack Murray and Forbes Avenue to the point where one can’t walk 10 feet down the sidewalk without seeing some eye-catching knickknack though a window.

There are a few massive chain businesses, like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Doughnuts. Every order placed, though, potentially comes with a side of guilt,. How can anyone surrounded by small coffee shops and teashops purchase a latte from the Goliath of cafes?

Tea shops, fair trade stores, clothing stores, and everything in between have a place here. The combination of merchant unity and the general wealth of Squirrel Hill’s residents make this neighborhood an ideal location for a sprouting business.

Charles Spiegel for Men: A fixture for over 3 decades

Charles Spiegel, owner of the eponymous upper-class apparel shop, and president of the Squirrel Hill Merchants Association, has been a fixture in the neighborhood and its businesses for the 32 years his clothing store has been open.

Every product inside the store looks like it’s been yanked from the pages of GQ Magazine. If you walk in wearing anything other than a suit and tie, you’ll probably feel underdressed. 

“Squirrel Hill is overall, without question, the greatest neighborhood in Pittsburgh,” Spiegel proclaims while chewing a slice of pizza from his store’s next-door neighbor, Pizza Bellino.

Everything about Squirrel Hill, including the neighborhood’s affluence, amenities, residents, and strong business district, goes into making the neighborhood great, according to Spiegel.

On a less busy day, Spiegel is surrounded with paperwork and spends time on the phone with manufacturers. Meanwhile, the employees examine every inch of the store to make sure it’s clean and presentable.

“The thing about owning a business is that even on a day like today, there’s always something to do,” an employee says.

Spiegel also works with the Squirrel Hill Merchants Association to unite business owners and brighten the community. He explains that the SHMA works to improve lighting, benches, trees, beautification, and promotion. He has big plans for the future of the Merchant’s Association, including hiring someone to manage it full-time.

Family-owned Little’s Shoes

One of Squirrel Hill’s most famous stores is Little’s Shoes. Justin Sigal, president of Little’s, is now part of the third family to own a business that has been in Squirrel Hill for over 100 years.

It’s a full-service shoe store, so employees roam the premises, ready to help customers find the right footwear. Little’s, ironically, is much larger than most buildings that house shops on the 5800 block of Forbes. This space is needed for all of the aisles filled with shoeboxes in the backroom.

Even with the massive inventory, employees walk up to Sigal telling him what shoes need to be ordered. Sigal has a firm handle on his business, despite his youthful appearance. This may be due to being involved with Little’s since he was a kid.

“I came to work with my dad when I was little, went to some of the away events, shoe shows and things, so I’ve always enjoyed it,” Sigal says.

Little’s Shoes is across the street from Charles Spiegel for Men, and is also actively involved in the Merchants’ Association.

Sigal is willing to do “whatever it takes to help make Squirrel Hill better and this community better, whether its maintenance or events; that’s what we’re here for.”

He says the fact that many people stay in the area for multiple generations help to make Squirrel Hill a great neighborhood. It and creates a comfort level and unique atmosphere for a business community.

Margaret’s Fine Imports

For Margaret Harris, life is all about tea. A native of Poland, she came to Pittsburgh and initially opened up a teashop on Murray Avenue. After relocating to Forbes, she has found success by attracting both locals and tourists to Margaret’s Fine Imports.

“I am a destination store, because of my tea assortment, so people come from all over,” Harris says. “ I get people from Morgantown, Youngstown… I get people that come visit their families and I’m on the map.”

The shelves of the store are lined with bags and jars of loose teas, as well as snacks and candies imported from other countries. The store boasts over 200 loose teas, and Harris hosts tea-tastings and tea classes to get the community involved in the beverage she is so passionate about.

Today, she’s dressed in a traditional Chinese red dress during her class. Locals are packed tightly together in the store on chairs brought in from the back room. Harris gives the audience of 10 or 12 people a background on the history of tea, asks them their favorite teas, and gives a tea-making demonstration.

To involve herself with the community, Harris participates in the annual Sidewalk Sale. This is a July event in which merchants set up tables in the neighborhood and promote their products. Harris keeps a table up outside year-round to attract people to her store.

“I’m big on organizing events because it draws customers,” Harris says. She also spends two hours a day on social media to connect with customers in Squirrel Hill and elsewhere.