Thursday, May 22, 2008

Just How I Remember the Lower East Side

Twice a year, just before Pesach and just before Rosh Hashanna, from the time I was maybe 5-6 until 20+, my parents would take my sister and I down to the Lower East Side for shopping. It was a wonder-world of hustle-bustle, pickles-in-barrels, Jewish deli and finding a parking spot. All through the 1950s and early 1960s, that was the LES. My mother was born there in 1919 on Stanton Street and my father, the scout, knew the ins and outs, although why it was always on a Sunday. And there was Bernstein's-on-Essex.

Well, even the New York Times waxed nostalgic:-

It used to be that if you wanted to buy suits, fabric, leather goods, jewelry and even underwear, there was a block on the Lower East Side where you could find it. Now only a handful of the shops remain, most selling lingerie and other undergarments.

“We’re a dying breed,” Mr. Markowitz said as he oversaw his small operation, Howard Sportswear, from a cluttered desk at the back of the shop at 69 Orchard Street, near the corner of Grand Street. Thin cardboard boxes stuffed with bras, panties, and hosiery were piled in narrow rows that almost reached the ceiling. Samples of satin slips, multihued tights, knee-highs and girdles of varying lengths were hung closer to the ground.

A wheeled wood ladder attached to a thin metal rod, reminiscent of those used in libraries, provided access to the towering levels of merchandise.

...At its peak, the Lower East Side shopping district was bustling on Sundays with shoppers stopping at egg-cream stands and going to Katz’s Delicatessen for corned beef sandwiches. Shops were filled with clerks who could tell a customer’s size in one glance.

...Around the corner, at 294 Grand Street, in what was once the elegant but now dusty windowed entrance of IMKAR Company, hang old samples of cotton T-shirts, pajamas and housedresses from decades past. Inside the shop, Wolf Karfiol, the owner, listened to the crackling sounds of talk radio, and waited for customers. These days, there are few. “The Lower East Side was always the biggest discount center in the United States, but now everybody is discounting,” said Mr. Karfiol, whose father founded the shop, originally on Orchard Street, in 1941, after fleeing the Nazis in Germany.


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