Monday, August 30, 2010


Earlier in August I reported that the defunct Gordon Novelty Shop had been unsheathed. For a brief, shining moment, we were able to enjoy that gorgeous facade once more. A commenter then tipped us to the fact that Gordon's demolition has begun--and a trip to the site confirmed that the death shroud has indeed been lowered.

This area just north of Union Square was once filled with novelty shops. If you scroll through microfilm images of those streets at the Municipal Archives, in the grainy shots you will see the word NOVELTY everywhere, along with: Balloons, Bingo Games, Favors, Party Hats, Bridge Prizes, and Souvenirs.

I imagine that walking through those streets, at mid-century, must have been like walking into the world behind the mesmerizing novelty ads in old comic books. Just looking at those pages could fire the imagination for untold hours.

Like "Appetizing," which I wrote about here, the word "Novelty" (and its plural "Novelties") is a rare find on a New York sign. Many have vanished, some remain.

Here is the Gordon storefront before it was gone.

The plural appears today on a floral supply shop in the Flower District, and probably doesn't refer to hand buzzers and whoopie cushions.

When Anthropologie moved into B. Shackman's favors and novelties shop on 5th Avenue, they left the plaque on the wall. It's still there, but the heavy wooden revolving door was removed. Shackman's, as I remember it, was also not the fake-vomit breed of novelty shop, but sold mostly dollhouse furnishings and greeting cards.

photo from kiminnyc's flickr

1932 catalog selling on Amazon

And here is a shot of Jimson's Novelty shop, vanished from 18th and Broadway sometime in the mid-1990s, if I remember right. There's a noodle or dumpling place, or something similar, there now.

photo: Jack Szwergold's flickr

Keep your eyes open for "Novelty." If you come upon this rare word in New York City signage, please add your shots to the Vanishing NY Flickr pool.


Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

Jimson's Novelty shop they had tables stacked with all sorts of tricks and gags for 5 or 10 cents. I would spend a long time time there in the late 50s. And the blue building what a dream that was, every pre-Halloween the place would get packed with dreamers of costumes. Have some nice memories of stores there. Gone forever...Sigh :(

Rob said...

Novelty dying out in New York. Really a shame to see.

If you can't find space for Novelty in a Great World City, then things are all wrong. Instead we need further injections of glossy mundanity, the Starbucks and Subway we know and trust, same as any dying small town. What a sadness.

Ken Mac said...

i found "Novelty Court" in Williamsburg, the sign done in grand lettering on an apartment building. Perhaps it was once a real novelty court.

blue glass said...

shachtmans was a most wonderful store. you could buy favors for a party (for adults too) and faux antique items like 1800's playing cards, and embossed stickers. i used to take my young son in there and make him very happy for about $5.00.
they tried to stay in business by changing their inventory but couldn't keep it going.
there are still a few novelty stores on broadway but it's mostlyl junk and wholesale.
there were lots of exciting stores in the 50s and 60s, all gone.

KSx said...

Seems the area from 21st up used to be known as "the Toy District," centered around the Toy Center at 23rd.

JakeGould said...

Ahh, novelty shops. To the best of my knowledge, "novelty" refers to small/impulse purchase items that are easy to carry and easy to sell compared to other items.

So all these shops dealt with mail order to an extent, but they supplied wandering salesmen who would buy items in bulk and then sell them to small mom and pop stores. Thus the reason why soda fountains back in the day had racks of tiny items for sale.

The closest modern equivalent are the folks who sell stuff on card tables around the city; notably on 6th Avenue right near here. The big differentiating factor being most sell items larger than most novelty items of the past: Bubble guns, iPod cases, toy cars and such.

I think the novelty business started to die when parents became more wary of what their kids could purchase. I mean, you can look in a Johnson and Smith catalog from the early 1970s and find switchblades being sold next to gags and jokes! And any kid could buy them! By the early 1980s I recall these kinds of ads and offers for kids slowly disappearing.

Ditto with small novelty charms aimed for kids and sold out of vending machines. The items are so small that they could be considering a choking hazard nowadays. Thus less and less capsule vending machines around the city anymore.

Also, one can consider apps in the Apple store to be what replaced them. Why buy a standalone fart noise keychain when you can download a 99 cent app and get the same experience? Right?

Novelties are digital nowadays. Sad. Something is being lost.

Anonymous said...

One shouldn't complain about the loss of novelties unless one has actually bought a few novelties in the past few years.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Jake, nice point about Apps being like modern-day novelties. do they really make fart Apps?

thanks all for sharing memories of these places.

Anon, hard to buy novelties when the stores are all gone. my last in-person purchase was 2007--X-Ray Specs and buggy ice at the Funny Store, which is now a Shake Shack.

of course, now we can mail order from Archie McPhee, which sells many of the comic-book classics:

Gary Levinson said...

Gordon still exists (sort of) at 52 W 29. They're part of Paramount Party Supply.

Shackman's went mail order - their offices were in the 30's around '99. They have since moved out to Michigan, but they're still around.

Tricia said...

It figures that Thor Equities, which has done everything possible to erase amusements from their property in Coney Island would be the one to desecrate & destroy Gordon's Novelties.

As for novelty shops, your post brought back memories of my carny kid childhood. To keep our games stocked with a wide variety of prizes, large and small, my family made regular trips to what we called "wholesale houses" (though some also did retail) in Boston, Providence and NYC. These vanished businesses always had the word "novelties" in their name. I loved trips to the wholesale house because I'd always leave with new toys!

Carol Gardens said...

For a great read on the subject:

"Cheap Laffs: The Art of the Novelty Item" by Mark Newgarden.

I have seen this book cheap in the remainder section at Barnes and Nobles recently...

Anonymous said...

As of 2005 there was a small black and white sign that read Novelty Co. which hung at 8 W. 37th St. just west of 5th Ave.
I first discovered the sign in 1994. I worked on the block until 2005. I never investigated but did run into a friend exiting. He was there to buy a prop revolver.

Anonymous said...

I remember going to Gordon's novelty shop. My father who was also in the import business was good friends with Jack Gordon who own Gordons during the sixtys.
Jack also had two brothers who had their own novelty shop on 23rd street. That was named BenGor Imports. I believe it was own by Ben and Lou Gordon.