Monday, June 18, 2018

Sylvia Pines Uniquities

VANISHING

Since 1981 there’s been a little vintage jewelry shop on the corner of 77th and Lexington called Sylvia Pines Uniquities. By the end of June, it will be gone. It won’t be vanishing because the Internet killed it. It won’t be vanishing because no one buys Victorian handbags or Art Deco necklaces anymore. It will vanish for just one reason: The rent has more than tripled.



On a warm evening, Sylvia Pines’ daughter, Judy Freedman, is behind the counter, taking care of a customer who has been shopping for three hours straight. The customer, a local doctor with a passion for antique beads and opera glasses, points to rings, necklaces, and handbags, wanting to see it all.

“Is that real coral?” she asks.
“No,” Judy replies. “That’s fake.”
“Good,” says the customer. “I don’t want it. How about that handbag?”
Judy gets on a step-stool and pulls down a pink and white beaded bag. The customer runs her fingers over the beads and the two women talk bags.

“Judith Lieber,” Judy says, “was one of the most famous pocketbook makers in the city. She’d come in to this shop to buy vintage bags and then reproduce them.”
“She did,” says the customer. “And now her bags sell at Sotheby’s. On the Upper East Side, when all the old broads die, their Judith Liebers go to Sotheby’s. I want to see one more thing. Are those glass beads Murano? As opposed to moronic.”

Judy reaches into the window, pulls out a string of beads, and hands it to the customer, who holds it up to her throat, letting it dangle down the front of her t-shirt.

“Those are not for you,” Judy says confidently. “They’re gorgeous, but they’re not your colors.”



After the customer completes her purchases and leaves, Judy tells me that a new owner bought the building a couple of years ago and renovated the apartments, turning one-bedrooms into two and hiking the rents.

“I’ve been paying $6,200 a month,” Judy says, “and it’s going to $20,000. What can you sell in a store this size? Drugs. Or Cartier. You can’t sell enough to make that rent. I’d have to sell three $3,000 bags a day. You can’t do it.”

The building, 1104 Lexington, was purchased in 2016 by Friedland Properties. According to The Real Deal, "Friedland acquired the properties from the estate of Marie Cowing, with property records indicating the buildings last changed hands in 1971."

Judy figures the place will sit empty, like other shops on the street, blighted by high rent. This emptying out troubles her, along with the homogenization from chains. “Part of the beauty of New York is the nitty gritty,” she says. “This is a damn great city.” But it’s just not the same. “We’re all feeling it,” she says. “We’re losing the character.”



Sylvia Pines, who started the family business 38 years ago, still works the shop, providing a good portion of its character.

“My mother is 97 years old,” Judy says. “She smokes cigarettes and drinks vodka. She comes in every day from the Bronx. She sits on that fire hydrant out there and smokes. And she’s tough. When she saw a guy sitting on her fire hydrant, she kicked him off. She told him, ‘That’s my fire hydrant.’ You don't mess with her.”

And Sylvia is not a patient shopkeeper either. If a customer takes too long to make a decision, Sylvia will say, “I helped you enough. I’m not spending anymore time with you,” and that’s that. Judy is much more patient, a fact that sometimes irritates Sylvia, who says, “That’s aroisgevorfene gelt,” Yiddish for a waste of money.

Still, for all her toughness, Sylvia takes care of people. One morning, she watched a woman park her car in front of the shop and run with her young son to Lenox Hill Hospital around the corner. All day, Sylvia fed coins into the parking meter so the woman wouldn't get a ticket. Later, the woman sent flowers to the shop with a thank-you note explaining that her son, with a burst appendix, had made it out okay.



Like her mother, Judy takes care of people, too, embodying the ways small shopkeepers contribute to the emotional health of the city.

She gives food and clothing to Carlos, the homeless man who sits on a stool by the shop. She sometimes gives away inexpensive pieces, just to make people happy. Recently she gave away a trio of “Speak No Evil” monkeys to three young men who’d come in covered in tattoos. They looked intimidating, but they appreciated the jewelry and other antiques, and Judy could see they were “old souls,” so they deserved a gift, because “everyone needs a little gift sometimes.”

As we talk, an elderly woman walks in, dressed in linen and a broad-brimmed straw hat. She opens a box and tells Judy, “I want to show you something.” From the box she takes out a pair of large pearl earrings. Judy tells her, “These are stunning. Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. And you can wear them with anything.” The woman is having trouble securing the earrings in her ears, so Judy tells her what to do, explaining that the backs are tight, but they’ll loosen up. “It’ll get easier,” Judy says.

Slowly, the woman goes on pulling items from her box. A bracelet that belonged to her grandmother. A gold necklace from an aunt. A watch chain from her father. She holds it up for Judy to see.

“Don’t sell these,” Judy says. “Give them to someone who’s special to you.” The woman explains that she’d like to make a bracelet from her father’s chain, but the clasp is broken. “Come back tomorrow,” Judy says, “and I’ll take care of it.” She refuses to charge any money for the repair. The woman, who doesn't like taking things for free, leans over the counter and whispers, “I'm a therapist. I’ll give you therapy in exchange.”



When the woman leaves, Judy and I talk about the shop’s customers, how they come looking for connection and conversation, along with the wares. What will they do when Judy and Sylvia are gone?

She tells me about the goodbyes, the customers who lean over the counter to kiss her cheek, who promise to have her over for dinner, and who bring gifts, like the woman who made a memory box for Judy and told her, “Put your memories in here.”

By now, we’re both fighting back tears.

“In order to pacify my sadness,” Judy says, “I’m going to cultivate the other part of me.” She plans to spend more time painting and playing classical piano. She wants to learn Spanish. The shop will be gone in another week and Judy needs to fill the days. A part of her is looking forward to the time. It's been many years behind that counter.

“I’m gonna miss the clowns,” she says, “but not the circus. I’ll miss my people. What is beautiful about this place is that I have relationships here.”

She wonders if, in another life, she would have been a therapist. I tell her, “You are one,” and then we’re fighting tears again.

Judy says, “The city used to be full of little stores like this, where you could go in and talk, and people cared. It was like talking to your local bartender. In this shop, I was like a bartender of jewelry.”



If you want to stop massive commercial rent hikes that put small businesses out of business, take action:

- Write to the mayor and ask him to support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). Here's a quick form you can fill out in just a few easy steps.

- Write to Council Speaker Corey Johnson and ask him to support a strong SBJSA and bring it to a vote. Here's a quick and easy form for that, too.

- Here's more you can do.

- And talk about it. Talk to your friends, family, and co-workers. Tell them that mom and pops aren't vanishing "because of the market" or "all because of the Internet," they're vanishing because the city and state support landlord greed -- but this can change. There are solutions. The first step is raising consciousness. We have to imagine a different city.

6 comments:

John K said...

I'm not sure where the regular commenters are, but I hope they chime in about this moving entry, Jeremiah, and your other recent posts. Maybe some of the readers are reaching a tipping point of sorrow akin to the one New York seems to have approached in terms of hypergentrification's leveling effect on all these smal businesses. It's tough to see what's happening and know that no one with real power appears eager to do anything about it. I'm glad both Sylvia Pines and you mentioned the empty storefronts marking all the now ousted and shuttered little shops nearby, so many of them unique like this one. Over the last 3-4 years along Lexington between Hunter College and the 77th Street station, a number of the small mom-ad-pop businesses have vanished, and it seems like only higher end businesses are replacing them. Didn't this district's NYC Councilman speak out about this not long ago? Is there no way to get through the De Blasio and the City Council to protect small and local businesses that aren't real estate owners and developers?

Jeremiah Moss said...

RE: Commenters. Apologies, I'm having trouble not getting comment notifications and they're all sitting for weeks in my queue.

samadamsthedog said...

"Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man"

Pat said...

I'm not much of a jewelry person and have never been in this store, but reading about it makes me think of Raquel Jewelry on Lexington Avenue & 24th Street in the George Washington Hotel which is now the Freehand Hotel. Raquel was an elderly women when I spoke to her in her store about selling a ring, it was about 6-7 years ago. She was a very nice person and I was impressed with her who kept going at a late age with her own store. She had beautiful things from all over the world, lots of curios and interesting items that you don't see every day. And she had a piano in the store which she played! The store is gone now, I guess she retired, I hope she went out on her terms. Well one more memory from the street.

Goggla said...

This shop and these people are the reason I live here. It's heartbreaking to keep losing these businesses that feel like family. Beautifully written piece.

roche said...

this is a beautiful story. it made me cry..my husband has a mom and pop hardware store on
east 21st st .who know what will happen to it