Monday, May 20, 2013

Moscot on the Move

On the occasion of their big move from one corner of Orchard and Delancey to the other, Moscot invited me to spend some time touring the shop and talking with the owner...

In the optical store that his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father ran throughout the 20th century, fourth-generation owner Dr. Harvey Moscot recalls being put to work at six years old. His job was to install screws into eyeglass frames. He quotes his father, saying, “I’m a graduate of DelChard University,” DelChard referring to the corner of Delancey and Orchard Streets.

After standing on the northeast corner of those streets for the past 77 years, its giant Eckleburgian spectacles keeping watch over the Lower East Side, the great Sol Moscot is moving. It won’t be the first time. Birthed from a moveable pushcart, they went brick and mortar on Rivington Street in 1915, later moved to 119 Orchard, then to their current spot in 1936. After this next move, they’ll still be on the corner of Orchard and Delancey, just not this corner. This corner is being demolished to make room for a 13-story condo tower.

“I learned this street when it was a tough neighborhood,” Moscot says. “Back when people from the methadone clinic nearby would come up to the get their eyes examined. Back in the Starsky and Hutch days when we’d jump across the counter to chase after people who lifted frames.”

The neighborhood has changed dramatically since then, and more so in recent years. Once a pedestrian mall crammed with bargain shoppers and merchants hawking cut-rate wares, Orchard Street is becoming a high-end destination for art collectors, foodies, and well-heeled consumers seeking designer boutiques. Luxury condos are rising left and right. If scruffy rockers like Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia used to shop at Moscot, now it’s Johnny Depp and Kanye West. But Harvey doesn’t like to name drop.

“Every customer is equal to a celebrity here,” he says. “We treat everyone the same.”

Customers flow in and out, some old, some new. An elderly African-American woman pushing a shopping cart is greeted by her first name. A pair of European hipsters in straw boater hats browse the frames. When photographer and hipster icon Terry Richardson enters the store with an entourage of cameramen, there’s a murmur of curiosity. He’s trying on the Terry, the oversized frames that bear his name and signature style. But on closer inspection, it isn’t Terry Richardson at all. It’s an Italian look-alike who calls himself “Fake Terry Richardson.” Fake Terry puts on the Terry frames and poses with a photo of real Terry, also in the Terry frames. You get the feeling that things like this happen every day at Moscot.

While many customers have been coming to the store for generations, young people have seized on Moscot as a way to enhance their style.

Harvey explains, “The younger generation appreciates a 100-year-old business. We’re not virtual. We’re authentic. To be real is an asset. People want something with a true history that’s not conjured up by venture capitalists with a shelf-life of five years. People long for the real thing. It gives them a sense of security in an insecure world.”

Many of Moscot’s frames are archival, made from the original designs. They also have real rivets and true hinges. Harvey inspects a non-Moscot frame. “See these here,” he says, pointing to the chrome dots at the end pieces of the non-Moscot, “these are just decorative. They have no function. They’re not real rivets. See? They don’t connect to anything.” He pulls the Lemtosh from his own face, and says with excitement and pride, “Now look at this. This is a real rivet. It’s connected to the hinge. It’s not just decoration, it has a purpose.”

Harvey’s passion for rivets and hinges goes back to his boyhood days of installing screws, watching the older men conduct business. “I had the privilege of working with Sol Moscot on Saturdays and Sundays. He loved to adjust frames and remind people to come back for tune-ups. Even after the sale was consummated, he’d be out there working with the customer. He was like the old shoemaker who really cared about things.”

With so much history here, does Harvey feel any sadness about being pushed out of his store? He says, “You cannot stop progress. It’s New York. It’s what real estate people do. We do our own part to preserve New York. But I’ll tell you, I saw my dad walk down the steps the other day, and his eyes welled up with tears. I said, ‘You alright?’ He just said, ‘I’ve walked up and down these stairs for 50 years.’”

Though he mainly looks to the future, Harvey admits to being nostalgic. He is taking almost every artifact from the shop to the new space—the baked-enamel signs from the stairs, the neon eyeglass signs, the antique cabinets, the wooden peg and groove chairs from 1938 (aka The Thrones of Moscot)—all of it is being carefully moved to the new store across Delancey.

The new store will occupy the first floor, no more second-story business, with orders filled in the basement. They've installed a dumbwaiter, just like they have at the current shop, to ferry glasses up and down. (The dumbwaiter has impeded their opening date--it required an elevator permit and inspection.)

Harvey feels optimistic about the move. For him, it’s “an inflection point, where the new generation is coming in to work.” His son, Zack, will be the next Moscot to enter the business, making it a five-generation endeavor, and hopefully securing Moscot's future for decades. “We call him 5G,” Harvey says, laughing.

But mostly, what Harvey feels about the move is pride. He managed to keep Moscot in the neighborhood. He says, “Had I not been proactive, it would have ended. And that’s what’s burning inside me. Had Moscot not been able to operate where we were born, it would have been tragic. But they didn’t beat us. We’re rolling across the street, and the eyes of Moscot will still be looking down upon Orchard.”

The new Moscot is set to open on May 22--take a peek inside the new store.

See all my Moscot photos here.


Anonymous said...


those stairs - it was like homecoming. my mother went there, literally until she couldn't walk anymore, i went there, i dragged an ungrateful (now ex-) boyfriend there. When my current glasses finally collapse I'm going back. However, I will request lens that block out b*U)#$s@#*&$)#t 13-story glass condos. I'm sure if anyone can make them Moscot can.

laura said...

how come i never heard of this place? they didnt do enough PR.

MrsPiggy549 said...

Thanks for sharing. My dad, Joe Goldman, was trained by Sol Moscot. He used to go to Sol's shop before and after his job in the bakery, on Orchard Street, in the late 1930's. Yup, JG learned the optical business while squeezing jelly into donuts!

79rigid said...

@MrsPiggy549 that's a neat story.After reading this post I feel bummed that I never went inside,but it felt like a douche move to go in there just to look around seeing as how I don't wear glasses.

Jill said...

For reasons that are lost to time, my mother dragged me into the city to Moscot's to get my first glasses in 3rd grade. I think she knew someone who got her a discount, but I can't imagine who. Maybe my grandfather who seemed to know a lot of people who got discounts on a large variety of weird stuff. Pay retail? Never. I cried and cried about having to wear glasses and those giant tortoise shell octagon glasses didn't improve matters.