6sqft’s series “Where I Work” takes us into the studios, offices, and businesses of New Yorkers across the city. In this installment, we’re going inside 130-year-old Lower East Side shop Mendel Goldberg Fabrics. Want to see your business featured here? Get in touch!
Mendel Goldberg Fabrics, a fourth-generation family-owned textile boutique, has been in business since 1890 and is located on a quiet side street on the Lower East Side. People who walk down Hester Street often take the time to notice the exquisite designer imported fabrics that hang in the window display as well as the huge range of brocades, silk, gabardine, lace, wool, novelty fabrics and boucle´ in a wide variety of colors and textures, which line the shops walls from floor to ceiling. Despite a devastating fire in the building in 2012 that destroyed the entire basement fabric stock and required substantial rebuilding, the business is thriving. On a recent visit to the fabric store, we had a chance to speak with Alice Goldberg, the great-granddaughter of Mendel Goldberg, about how the business went from a pushcart to a unique destination, the joys of running one of the oldest surviving shops in the neighborhood, and the secrets of some of their most high-end fabrics.
Top: Storefront as photographed in 2004 from James and Karla Murray’s book “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York”; Bottom: The storefront today
Tell us a bit about the history of this unique shop.
Alice: My great-grandfather Mendel Goldberg founded the store after emigrating here from Poland. He actually started selling tailoring supplies from a pushcart. He would collect the ends of the spools of thread from local tailors and sell them from his pushcart along Orchard Street. This area was a center for the garment business back then.
Alice holding a photo of her father, Samuel
When my grandfather, Alexander, joined the business, he expanded by selling silk linings for the fur trade and also stocking various fabrics. My father, Samuel, joined the family business at age 14 while he was still in high school. He was a gifted salesman and established himself as a fabric supplier to major department stores including Macy’s and Gimbels. At that time, both of those stores had very large fabric departments because most everybody made their own clothes. There was not even couture sold in the United States yet. Samuel would make appointments with the buyer for Macy’s 34th Street Flagship store and show them fabric samples. The buyer would purchase what they wanted and then send our fabric to all of the Macy’s stores around the country. And the same thing would happen at Gimbels.
An area in the back of the store that’s been unrestored since the 2012 fire
Most of our customers at that time were not only people from the neighborhood, but clients coming in from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island, and Long Island. There were three other fabric stores just on this short stretch of Hester Street. Sunday was our busiest day but I didn’t work in the shop back then. Louis Ortega, our store manager, is the one who knows that time best because he has worked here since 1989. Louis is really the history of the business; he’s like family to me.
Louis with a selection of bouclé fabrics
Louis: On Sunday, we used to have two cash registers open and four to five salespeople working. We used to lock the door and wait until a salesperson got free before we would let more people in. There would be a huge line of people waiting outside to buy fabric from us. Many of them heard about us through word of mouth but we also advertised in the Yellow Pages at that time. Most of the fabric we sold in the late 1980s was polyester prints that people used to make dresses and blouses. We also sold a lot of wool blends. The average price back then for a 35- to 45-inch width was $4.95 a yard. And the polyester we sold was a very good quality. It felt like silk but was washable. You could just wash and wear it and that is why it was so popular.
Alice in the designer silk section
Alice, why and when did you join the family business?
Alice: I didn’t start working here until I was about 40 years old, but I spent my childhood visiting the store. I initially came in just to help out my father. I thought I was coming in short-term, but I loved it and never left! It all started when a buying opportunity came up in Switzerland and my father told me that I had to go there for him. I knew nothing but I went to Switzerland and bought fabric and when the collection came in, it sold out so quickly that I had to reorder on the phone after only one week. I remember it vividly. It was a Sunday and we had a lot of Hasidic Williamsburg customers who would start coming into the shop in the morning. Sara Brown was my first customer and by 4:00 in the afternoon we were very low on goods.
Silk prints and silk charmeuse
When I first went to Switzerland, my father wanted me to go to a company that was outside Zurich. He said to me, “It will take you about six hours to go through their warehouse.” But I wasn’t in any rush to get to Europe and didn’t leave right away for my trip. By the time I did get there and saw Mr. Mettler, he told me, “I am very sorry but the warehouse was cleaned out last week. We had a Japanese customer come in who took it all.” I remembered that my father had taken me to a company uptown where I heard the town St.Gallen. So I said to the driver, take me to St. Gallen. I went to a company called Fishbacher and said, “I am here to buy goods!” The woman behind the desk put the most beautiful fabrics on the table that I had ever seen in my life. When I asked the price, it was four times the amount of what my father had instructed me to spend.
The woman asked me what type of credit I had. I knew I had a Mercedes and a driver in a suit outside so I said to her, “Can you do me a favor? I’m going to spend some time here, could you just send someone out to tell my driver?” I figured if they saw my driver that they would think I had enough money to pay for their goods. That would be my credit. And sure enough, it worked because she came back with Mr. Fishbacher, the owner of the company.
Did this experience influence how you select the wonderful high-end fabrics you currently stock at the store?
Alice: Yes. After I saw Mr. Fishbacher on that initial trip to Switzerland, I also went to see a second man on my father’s list, and I bought from him. When my father opened the goods and saw animals on the prints that I bought he said to me, “Nobody is going to buy these animals.” Well, by that Sunday, we were running low on those too.
I bought what I would like to buy for my own closet. In that second shipment, there was also a gorgeous silk print with gold leaves going across it. My father said, “Nobody is going to buy this because women think it makes them look heavier to have lines going around the width of their body.” But to me, it looked gorgeous. A few minutes later, a customer walked in and said she was here to buy silk prints. Sure enough, she bought the piece with the leaves going across. That’s when I finally had the confidence to go back to Europe again and buy high-end fabrics for the store.
Alice holding a Valentino embroidered tulle fabric
I changed the focus of the shop to concentrate on imported European designer fabrics but also include classic textiles that my father originally carried. Today, fabrics range from $100 to $1,200 a yard. My daughter is also now helping me in the store and will eventually take over the business and be the fifth-generation owner.
Racks of boucle
Speaking of buying what you like, how would you describe your personal style?
Alice: Personally, I like to wear fabrics with Lycra so I can move around while I’m working. I would wear every bouclé on this wall. I would wear practically every piece in this store. There is one piece that I selected that I would never wear. It was a Dolce & Gabbana piece and I didn’t see it when I purchased it but it was a silk print with cherubs on it. When it came into the shop, Louis opened the package and looked at it and said to me, “Look at this!” And the little cherubs weren’t dressed and had all of their you-know-what exposed. I said to Louis, “Oh, my God!” But it sold out! Every inch of it sold and we even ordered more. But the truth is that there is nothing in this store that I wouldn’t wear myself. And that is how I buy.
The desk and button area
How often do you change the inventory?
Alice: We get new fabrics in all the time because I travel to Italy, Switzerland, and France frequently to buy collections. I also do my own prints on various quality fabrics. We do a great deal of business supplying the fabric used for costumes in many Broadway shows as well as the Metropolitan Opera and various TV shows. They typically like wool stretch so they can move around on stage and set. The wool stretch is especially good for dance numbers and we stock that fabric in all colors.
Are there any interesting stories you would like to share?
Alice: One day my father was sitting in the back of the store eating a tuna sandwich. Louis had gone to the bank and I was up front. All of a sudden, I see three limousines pull up across the street. In come three big guys in suits. I went to my father and said, “Dad, put the sandwich down and come out here.” It turns out they were part of the secret service for a Saudi Arabian princess who was staying at the Plaza. The store quickly filled up with her entourage. They came in and started pulling fabrics and one of the secret service guys said to me, “Don’t give a discount. If you give a discount, she will walk out. And you have one hour because we have a plane waiting for us.” So we just measured the yardage so we would know how much they were taking and they walked out with whole pieces and got in their limousines and left. And while they were getting in their limousines, another guy comes in and pays for everything!
Front of the store
Who is your typical customer?
Alice: There is no typical customer. I love all of my customers and I can tell you that it makes a very big difference. We are known for our exceptional customer service. I was in a retail store yesterday and I thought I would be nauseous because the salesperson was telling everyone that all of the garments they were looking at were great. Everything can’t possibly be great! You can’t tell a woman to wear a thick bulky fabric if she doesn’t have the shape for it. Most of our clientele are women but we also see a good amount of men. We sell men’s suiting fabric. Pastors come in here because they need wool for coats and rabbis come in to buy fabric for their Kapatahs. It is a very specific coat that rabbis and very religious Hasidic men wear and we carry a lot of that fabric.
Haute couture lace
Has anyone ever surprised you with his or her purchase?
Alice: There was a guy who came in last week looking for lace. He wanted designer lace because he was making durags to help keep dreads in place. He makes very high-end durags and purchased some very nice fabric.
The window display
How do your customers find you on this small side street?
Alice: We are mainly known through word-of-mouth, and the fact that we have been in business for so long, generations of families have shopped here. We also have expanded in recent years by offering textiles on our website. The Internet has really widened our reach. We do a lot of Internet orders and ship everything all over the world. We also will ship free samples to clients. There really is no other store like this. I mean nobody else even carries a diverse collection or for that matter any collection of designer imported fabrics. They may have more square footage but they offer lots of different qualities of fabric. We don’t really have any competitors.
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James and Karla Murray are husband-and-wife New York-based photographers and authors. Their critically acclaimed books include Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, New York Nights, Store Front II- A History Preserved and Broken Windows-Graffiti NYC. The authors’ landmark 2008 book, Store Front, was cited in Bookforum’s Dec/Jan 2015 issue as one of the “Exemplary art books from the past two decades” and heralded as “One of the periods most successful New York books.” New York Nights was the winner of the prestigious New York Society Library’s 2012 New York City Book Award. James and Karla Murray’s work has been exhibited widely in major institutions and galleries, including solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Historical Society, Clic Gallery in New York City, and Fotogalerie Im Blauen Haus in Munich, Germany, and group shows at the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, CA. Their photographs are included in the permanent collections of major institutions, including the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the New York Public Library, and NYU Langone Medical Center. James and Karla were awarded the 2015 Regina Kellerman Award by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) in recognition of their significant contribution to the quality of life in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. James and Karla live in the East Village of Manhattan with their dog Hudson.
Tags : Mendel Goldberg Fabrics
Neighborhoods : Lower East Side