New York's great small places are not often included in the history records. They linger, or they vanish, leaving us to wonder about their stories. The B&H Dairy in the East Village is one of those places. As a longtime fan and customer, I was excited to hear from Florence Bergson Goldberg, the daughter of B&H founder Abie Bergson. She was kind enough to share her family photos and stories.
Bergson Goldberg: The B&H circa 1970s
Ms. Goldberg recalls, "My dad started his business on a handshake. He had worked as a waiter in a store across the street from where the B&H stands. When he decided he wanted to start his own business, he approached many of the restaurant supply merchants on the Bowery. They knew my father to be an honest man, and they all gave him credit with just a handshake."
"The B&H opened either in 1937 or 1938. Originally, B&H stood for Bergson and Heller. Later on, Mr. Heller left the business, and my father's friend, Sol Hausman, became his second partner, still B&H. Sol came up with an idea that B&H could also stand for 'Better Health.'"
The B&H was successful, but it never expanded and never really changed. As Ms. Goldberg recalls, "So many businesses, when they do well, begin to expand in the hope of 'making a killing.' My dad never thought in those terms. He would rather have had people waiting for seats than seats waiting for people."
Bergson Goldberg: The mom & pop, 1950s
Mr. Bergson and his partner sold the B&H around 1970. In 1978, counterman Leo Ratnofsky was profiled in the New Yorker's Talk of the Town. To hear Leo tell it, the B&H was the same in 1978 as it was in 1940 when he began--and as it still is today. The story is filled with buttered slices of homemade challah, bowls of soup, fresh-squeezed oranges, hungry crowds, and even "a meticulous Ukrainian" cook in the tiny back kitchen with a scarf on her head who now and then peeks out to see what's going on. I imagine she was back there peeling potatoes and mashing beets, just as her doppelganger is today.
In the New Yorker story, Leo calls out "Jumbo jockey!" when a customer leaves a tip of a quarter (or more), and the countermen mumble their thank-you's.
Ms. Goldberg remembers this B&H tipping ritual well. She says, "Whenever someone would leave a tip for them, my dad or his partner would tap the coins on the counter and call out 'Jockey!' to let them know a tip was left and allow them to say thank you."
Bergson Goldberg: The boss & his countermen
Said Leo on his last day of work, "I'll tell you truthfully--I don't feel bad about leaving the place. I've got bad feet, my fingernails are being eaten away from squeezing oranges. But to leave all these people--that makes me feel like crying. These actors and actresses, the hippies, the yippies, the beatniks, the bohemians, people who've run away from God knows where--I've always felt an attraction to them. Especially the starving ones."
Ms. Goldberg remembers the actors, too. She recalls how they "visited the store when they rehearsed at the Orpheum Theater. They loved my dad, and they loved the food served at the B&H. Among the many celebrities who graced the B&H were Shelly Winters, Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Jack Klugman, and Rocky Graziano to name just a few."
Leo recalls Molly Picon coming in to chat with Abie Bergson over a bowl of soup--Bergson was an aspiring actor, too, and when lower Second Avenue was Yiddish Broadway, says Leo, "The streets were so crowded you had to walk in the gutter."
photo by Tony Marciante, 1968
"The store was more than a place to eat," says Ms. Goldberg. "It was a place where friends got together to trade stories about their workday and their families. It was a happy place, and some of my fondest memories were of my many times spent at the store with my mom and dad."
As Leo put it in 1978, "This place has always had a spirit." It still does.