Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Master Cutting Table

I must have walked on 27th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue a million times. But somehow never noticed Master Cutting Table. Maybe the shutters were always down when I went by. Maybe I was too distracted by the neon of the weird old Senton Hotel. In any case, recently, deep in the depths of a rather bad mood, I came upon the miracle that is Master Cutting Table.

It was the decapitated Charlie McCarthy doll heads that caught my eye. And the mannequin in the vest and Spartan helmet. I got closer and looked in through the plate-glass window.

It was like looking into one of those panoramic Easter eggs as a kid. A whole world opened up. And, seeing what I saw, my mood instantly lifted.

American flags. Antique clocks. JFK and RFK posters. A bigger than life-size bathing beauty cardboard cut-out. Pressed-tin ceiling above and wooden floorboards below. A long path leading to the back of the shop through dozens and dozens of old garment industry machines:

Gold Stampers, Wire Stitchers, Rossley Button Machines, Defiance Foot Presses, Schaefer Cementers, Clicker Blocks, Rubber Pads.

Had I tumbled back through time? How could something so pure, so untouched still be permitted in the homogenized, stultified Manhattan of today? What delightful madness was this?

The lights were on, but the door was locked.

"This is our flag, be proud of it!" reads a sign on the door, below a "Back In" notice that doesn't indicate how many minutes will pass before they'll be back in. I waited around a bit, not wanting to stop looking. Eventually, I had to go, but vowed to return.

When I went back a few weeks later, it was the same scene: lights on and no one in sight.

I pushed the door. It opened with the tinkling of a bell.

I walked inside, unsure that I should be there, and tried to commit as much as I could to memory. The place smelled of age, of sweetly rotting paper, like a library. I breathed it in.

A silver-haired man emerged from a back door and came directly towards me, dressed all in black, his spine stiffly upright, his shoes shuffling.

"The door was open?" he said, indicating that it was not meant to be. "What can I do for you?"

"I'm admiring your shop," I said.

"Why? It's a dirty stinkin' hole!"

"It's beautiful."

"You shoulda seen it 60 years ago. It was a machine shop."

He ushered me to the door, adding, "Now we don't do nothin'."


"Nothin'! When you're old, you'll understand. When you're married, you'll understand. In the morning, you kiss the wife goodbye and say, 'Seeya later, Sweetie, I'm off to work!'"

"So you don't do anything here? You don't sell anything, fix anything? You just do nothing?"

"Come back when you're 60 and I'll tell you all about it!"

He closed to the door behind me, locked it, and shuffled back down the long path to the back room where he does nothing all day. A man who just wants to be left alone in his dirty, stinkin', beautiful museum of a machine shop.

The site 14to42 says Master Cutting Table has been here since the early 1960s. It is run by a man named Arnold. A writer at Manhattan Sideways ventured in to the place one time. She reported:

"Asked what he does here, Arnold replied: 'nothing.' Asked why he comes in, then: 'I don’t want to stay at home. I love my wife of over sixty years, but sometimes you just have to get away.' Having invested in property in New York when it was not as astronomically expensive, Arnold now owns this building and has the luxury of using it as a 'day home.' He is holding out against selling to developers bent on transforming the space. 'I’ll let my kids make that mistake,' he says. 'You can walk with a straight backbone knowing you own property in New York. It’s a marvelous feeling.'"


Caleo said...

Incredible. Both the actual shop and the attitude and reasoning behind it's continued existence. Beautiful.
May he live another 20 years so he can enjoy doing "nothing" in his museum everyday.

Denine Gorniak said...

This is one of the most poignant posts I've ready in a while. I'm so glad you stumbled upon it and that it's still there. The timelessness of it is so intriguing. You really walked into a special spot. Glad he owns that building and that the change of this place won't happen just yet. Sad that he does nothing all day. This would be a "Pickers" dream come true destination. I hope you can get more stories about this place.

Choresh Wald said...

You've made my day

Goggla said...

I think you found the secret heart of the city.

Donnie Moder said...

Great post. Noticed this place about 20 years ago when the neighborhood had more of these unusual places.

Captain Bringdown said...

This is probably my favorite JVNY post of all time. Just tremendous.

SJF said...

I passed by this store over the week-end and planned to return when the gates were up and I could take some photos for a possible painting. Spent some time peering into the window at all of the old sewing machines and memorabilia. A real slice of a vanishing New York.

Donnie Moder said...

Between 16th st and 23rd st and 5th and 7th Aves there used to be storefronts here and there with all sorts of gaskets and machine fittings and such. At least that is what I remember.

James said...

The store remains to remind us that without memory we have very little.
Great piece.

Richard Federico said...

Well Jeremiah, you're gonna have to mark it on your calendar for the year you turn 60 so you can have the mystery revealed and you can do a follow-up article. However, I think you actually stumbled onto one of the few old time eccentrics that are left in NYC who do things for reasons that no one can explain. In the late 70's/early 80's there were a good many businesses throughout all the boroughs where proprietors were operating much like this. Gosts of past industries, machine shops of all kinds, tool and dye shops, vacuum and sewing machine repair, piano repair, etc. where the owner kept the business going, but in reality were operating off the profits that were made 20 and 30 years prior. These places were like museums,(though not as meticulously displayed as Master Cutting Table), however the owners were just as eccentric and could even be mean if you said the wrong thing. This was old New York where business owners could be themselves and weren't necessarily going to be customer service friendly as everything is in today's plastic and over-sensitive world. Anyway, Master is often gated up so it is easy to walk past it and not see it.

Carla Dawn Behrle said...

Love Arnie! Bought tons of equipment there when the shop was a shop and I was just starting my leather business. And I DID buy a cutting table there! He always there with his sister Harriet(RIP). I try to stop in when I'm in the area, but like you said he's not often there. He was lucky and very smart with RE over the years. Always a sweet guy.
So glad he's still coming into the shop.

ImJustSayin said...

Thanks for this post. I walk by that shop frequently, and always admire it, and think of your blog. Now I know the story behind it -- or at least part of the story.

Tom and Johan said...

Thoroughly fascinating and moving story. Thank you for posting it.

Paul Silver said...

I walked in once (door was open) a few years ago... I asked about a metal etching plate I saw in the window. The man was shocked that I wanted to buy it... I think I paid about 20 bucks for it. As I left I realized it wasn't a "shop/store" at all... and I went my way feeling like I had just left his house.
I love NY!!!

onemorefoldedsunset said...

A dream of a store. I love the places where the owner's identity seeps into every corner. Thanks Jeremiah, this one's a beauty.

Jill said...

Wow, just wow.

Chuck said...

OMG, Jerimiah. I was just scrolling through your site to see who the latest business fatalities are and I came across this posting about the Master Cutting Table Co.

As you already know, I own a store called The Leather Man, Inc. located at 111 Christopher Street in Manhattan. Opened in 1965, it was formerly located at 85 Christopher Street. A leather craftsman who designed and manufactured black leather vests, jackets, pants, chaps and other custom leather apparel (and still does) I purchased my first wood cutting boards, cutting knives and accessories from this shop as well as numerous purchases afterward. I was a regular there for a good many years but, eventually, lost contact with them as the years rolled by.

While I do not recognize the name of the man you met in his store, I recall it being run by two gentlemen who always told me that I looked just like Steve Lawrence, flatterers that they were. LOL Given the fact that The Leather Man, Inc. just recently celebrated it 50th Anniversary, I suspect that the man you spoke with might be the son of one of the men with whom I always dealt.

At 80 years of age, and still being on Christopher Street, I guess one could safely say that I too, am one of the old kooks who is still doing his thing and like the gent you met, will probably keep doing it until I take my dirt nap. LOL