Editor’s note: Multiple people mentioned in this story share the same last name. Members of the Steinberg family will be mentioned by first name.
This year, Morris Auto Parts celebrates its 100th anniversary. Owner Harris Steinberg, 55, views the business’ story as a classic tale of the American Dream.
“In the late 1800s, my grandparents, Harris and Hannah Steinberg, emigrated from Poland for a better life for their kids here in the United States,” Harris said. “And they settled right here in one of these buildings on Kensington Avenue.”
According to Harris, his grandparents started up a wholesale retail tobacco shop called H. Steinberg. A few decades later, in 1922, Harris and Hannah’s first-born son, Morris, returned home from World War I. Morris bought properties next to his parents’ now-closed tobacco shop and opened Morris Auto Parts, selling car parts and horse buggy parts.
Around the opening of Morris Auto Parts, Harris passed away, leaving behind his wife and five children. Eugene, one of Morris’ two brothers, was the youngest child in the family that also included two sisters.
Morris stepped in as a father figure by mentoring Eugene in the auto business and later paying for college. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Eugene dropped out of Temple Law School to work at the shop full-time.
Eugene married his first wife, Ruth, before heading off to service in the Navy during World War II. When Eugene returned, he continued working for Morris.
Then, in the early 1950s, Ruth and Morris passed away. Following the loss, Eugene took ownership of Morris Auto Parts. A few years later, he met and married his second wife, Mary Ellen Ellis.
Growing up on Kensington Avenue
Through the late ‘50s and ‘60s, Eugene expanded the machine shop at Morris Auto Parts, opened a repair shop, and purchased surrounding real estate along Kensington Avenue. His seven children motivated him to push the business forward.
One of those children was Harris, who shares fond memories of running around the shop with his siblings during their youth.
“No matter what we did or mess we made, Dad never got mad,” Harris said. “[He] was always happy to have us there.”
Eugene hoped that one day one of his children would take over the business. He trained each of them for the role and kept them busy in the shop with tasks like stocking shelves, answering phones, and interacting with customers.
“Dad was always encouraging us and had a lot of confidence in us that we could do it all,” Harris said. “He made an impression on all of us. He was proud of us, and we were proud of ourselves and gained confidence.”
Harris and his siblings would also spend time going in and out of stores along Kensington Avenue.
In the decades since his youth, Harris has witnessed many changes in the neighborhood and on Kensington Avenue.
Through the ‘60s and ‘70s, the decline of the manufacturing industry in Kensington accelerated. The collapse of the neighborhood’s industrial economy corresponded with the deterioration of commerce along Kensington Avenue. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, as jobs continued to move away from the neighborhood, Harris saw vacancies along the corridor and witnessed the drug economy grow.
“There were small family-run shops all around — no abandoned houses, no trash,” he said, remembering the Kensington of his youth. “There were new immigrant businesses, as well as ones that had been handed down from a generation or more. It was a thriving retail corridor. You could get whatever you wanted or needed in such a small area.”
Inheriting the family business
When Harris was old enough to go to college, he decided to study finance at Albright College. Attending school 90 minutes away from Kensington allowed Harris to commute and continue helping his father run and modernize the business.
Then, on April 1, 1988, Eugene passed away while Harris was in his junior year at Albright. The loss was devastating to the family. Harris’ mother kept the business running with the help of loyal employees and customers. In April 1994, she handed the business over to Harris and his brother, Gene.
“I came in full-time, with not so much an idea of the financial background of what the business was all about, more so the operations end,” Harris said. “Having a degree in finance helped make up some difference, but there were a lot of lessons to learn.”
A year later, Gene stepped away from the business and Harris took full control.
In the mid ‘90s, Harris got married and had two children, Jacob and Jessica. Like his father before him, the birth of Harris’ children motivated him to push the business forward. He opened an automotive paint and body supply department at the store and formed POJA, a marketing and buying alliance, with other auto parts stores in the Tri-State area.
Morris Auto Parts: Present day
Harris attributes the success of Morris Auto Parts to its reliability. The shop can almost always guarantee they’ll have the part a customer needs within 24 hours.
“Our motto is, ‘Morris has it!’” he said. “And that doesn’t just apply to having the desired part on the shelf. We’re open 364 days a year [excluding Christmas Day].”
The business has also continued to adapt over the years. Customers can now order auto parts online, which reduces labor costs.
“The culture we try to strive for is one in which we take care of our customers, follow up and follow through,” Harris said. “Because at so many of the big box stores, they just don’t care, let alone have the know-how to help customers that are trying to find something that’s not easily found.”
Above all, Harris credits the shop’s success to the employees’ relationships with the surrounding community. Sales associate Antonio Lanzo has worked at the shop for four years.
“Every time a customer comes in looking for something, we’re always able to get them what they want,” Lanzo said.
The staff isn’t too far removed from the community either.
“Our employees all live in the area around the store,” Harris said. “I’ve taken on many interns from local tech schools and co-op programs and have hired them as employees part-time while they finish school. We’ve kept a few over the years, as well as many who stay as customers.”
Lifelong commitment to Kensington
Like his father before him, Harris brought his two children into the shop to help out and learn the business, but both went on to pursue higher education and chose different career paths. Harris is proud and happy for both, even though neither plans to fill his shoes one day.
For now, Harris continues to find joy in his work and doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon.
“I guess I have a real sentimental attachment to the homestead of my family for these 130 years or so,” he added. “ … And I really do appreciate it when customers comment that they can always count on Morris to get them what they need.”
In recent years, the opioid epidemic has exacerbated Kensington’s challenges. Additionally, Harris said that the COVID-19 pandemic has left the corridor isolated and in a worse state than he’s ever seen it before. However, he’s committed to keeping Morris Auto Parts in the neighborhood.
“There are many hard-working, good people that live and work around us that need us here,” he said.
When it comes to the future of Morris Auto Parts, Harris said he takes things one year at a time.
“Making it to 100 was not an easy path,” he said. “Staying in business five years is a major feat, let alone 100.”
Editors: Zari Tarazona, Khysir Carter, Christopher Malo, Siani Colón / Designer: Khysir Carter