Leather Bucket filled with treasures for 50 years
By Lou Mancinelli

Fifty years ago The Leather Bucket antique store opened at 8506 Germantown Ave. It remained in that location until 1980 when current owner Ron Klinger purchased the building he still owns at 8520 Germantown Ave. and moved the shop into its first-floor. Eight years later, a carriage-style home that featured stables caught his interest, and Klinger bought it and relocated his business to its current location at 84 Bethlehem Pike, less than a half-mile from where it was founded.

There’s something about antiques — the combined aroma of dust and years passed, the tales of previous owners reeled off in the imagination upon sight of a sterling silver or bronze teapot or an old chair imbued with the aura of maple. Those very trinkets and large pieces of Georgian furniture could just as well have come out of an old antebellum Southern novel.

The Leather Bucket is located at 84 Bethlehem Pike in Chestnut Hill, less than a half-mile from where it was founded 50 years ago. (Photo by Len Lear)

But Klinger, 76, is unsure if a future exists for shops of his sort.

“I don’t think shops of my nature are gonna be in existence very long,” said Klinger. “Antique shops are disappearing like mad.”

Over the past 15 years, a change has occurred. Now there’s the traveling antique road show and the internet, where anyone can be an instant expert and be exposed to scores of buying opportunities. There’s the slow economy and what Klinger explained as a change in buying habits. And there’s antique brown furniture, once as in style as wireless internet is now, whose demand has been replaced by furniture constructed in the 1950s.

The changes in trends are as normal to Klinger as the trend change from bell-bottoms to French-rolled jeans. It happens. That’s an insight he’s learned in life and in his 48 years in the business.

Raised by his grandparents on a 275-acre potato farm in Halifax, about 20 miles north of Harrisburg, Klinger graduated high school in 1953. He enrolled at Drexel University and studied for two years before he volunteered for the draft and served 16 months in the Army in Korea in various capacities including “gun-ape” as a courier and at an aircraft operations center.

After Korea, he returned to Drexel and earned a B.S. in 1961. After Drexel, he lived in Bryn Mawr and worked for a year in the engineering department at General Electric, then located at 32nd and Chestnut Streets in the shadow of his alma mater.

But the corporate world failed to provide Klinger with whatever it is he thought he needed. He realized he wanted something else for his life. He left GE after three years with the thought he “wasn’t gonna go anywhere.”

“I figured, you know what,” said Klinger, “get out while the getting out’s good. I wanted to be in business for myself.”

In May, 1964, he purchased The Leather Bucket with partner Neville Lewis. The store’s original founders were Joly Stewart, Bob and Sandy Glendinning, Betty Webster and John Walton.

It seems strange. An engineer in antiques? But it was his experience in college when he lived as a brother in the Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) fraternity house, then and still located at 3421 Powelton Ave. in a Georgian Southern-style mansion with nine fireplaces, ornate woodwork and cornices and other intriguing design elements like a gambrel roof, fluted Doric columns and Palladian windows that first piqued his interest in antiques.

Klinger and Lewis, who remained partners until 1968, learned quickly. Klinger started with $5,000 and has grown the shop into a six-figure-a-year enterprise. “When you have to make a living at it, you learn fast,” he said.

Still the glory days when he was “the fair-haired boy” buying up gorgeous antiques at Chestnut Hill home sales he experienced in the ‘60s and ‘70s are gone. Gone are the days when every six months Klinger traveled to England and returned with a crateful of collectibles and sold the large crates to his friends to use as sheds. Gone are the days when he’d be privy to the sales of 200 homes a year.

Klinger said people just aren’t moving as much these days. He said in the past, enthusiasts visited his store and asked him where they could go next. He’d send them down Bethlehem Pike where a number of stores, now gone, awaited those eager eyes. Gone are the days when Klinger filled a journal per year with the records of his purchases. Now are the days of one journal per every four years. It seems antique stores may soon be just as rare as quality antiques themselves.

Today, the most difficult challenge for Klinger is purchasing items that he thinks will sell. Pedigree relics and furniture are less plentiful. “When we had inflation we sold a lot of antiques,” he said, referring to the days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency that encompassed 1977-1981.

In the early ‘90s, Klinger might have sold $500K-$600K worth of goods per year, whereas today he sells about only 60 percent of that, or around $300K-$360K.

Klinger has learned what it takes to make a business succeed. Aside from a thriving market, he explained, it’s about how you deal with people. And over the years he’s made good enough friends with customers that when he wanted to separate from his partner, a customer sent in his lawyer, and Klinger never received a bill.

“That’s the type of people you have in Chestnut Hill,” said Klinger, who used to live on Germantown Avenue but moved to Wyndmoor last November, where he lives with his wife Anne. When they married, they each had three children. They now have five grandchildren. “If you’re fair with people, it comes back in spades.”

For more information, call 215-242-1140.