Sunday, December 2, 2007

Silk Dreams at 90 Church

You know those subjects you can’t bring up at the dinner table, the ones that get some people mad. No, were not talking about politics or religion here, it’s something worse.

Back in the summer of 1956 my Grandmother and Grandfather decided to take a stab at the big fat cash cow called “Church Avenue”. Now, Church Avenue has always been excellent when it came to simple “foot traffic”, even back in the summer of 1956. Except for one slight problem according to my Grandfather “Paco”. The more affluent people with money in their pockets simply made the left from the F-Train and walked along Church to Ocean Parkway. They never looked towards Dahill Road or even bothered to give it a second thought.

The name of my Grandmothers store was “Isabel’s”; it was located at 90 Church Avenue. Basically the cash cows “tail”, which rarely moved to swat a fly no less. My Grandmother Isabel was always a working woman you see. And she usually held positions such as supervisor or “floor lady” wherever she worked. One of her specialties was hand-made lampshades, and she was proud of her position at Krasnours Lamp Shade Factory on Prince street in Manhattan. She was the floor lady there; basically supervising the workers to make sure the quality of the shades were up to standard. A job she held for many years until she decided to give her own business a shot one day. So with the knowledge of Kensington and a “store for rent” sign at 90 Church, my Grandparents took a plunge into owning their own business. The Grand Opening was sometime in the summer of 1956. They sold custom-made silk lampshades, imported plates, crystal, porcelain figurines and various other “high end “ knick-knacks. The entire family worked there and helped to keep it a float. My Mom, Dad, Aunt Dolores, and Uncle Pete helping out my Grandmother and Grandfather any way they could. Making deliveries, working the register or taking the F-Train to Canal street to buy the lamp shade skeletons that gave them their shapes.

I always remember my Grandfathers face getting red when he used to talk about “the store”. “What a waste of money, we should have invested in another property instead”. “God Dam store!”. Now you have to remember that as kids growing up we only heard about “the store”, because it closed down before my cousins and I were even born. Although we knew something had happened once, there was an entire room in the basement full of lampshade skeletons, rolls of silk material, plates and porcelain figurines. And a wonderful large old-fashioned gold cash register in the garage. A huge monster that just sat in the corner gathering dust. As kids we used to play with it, pushing hard down on the buttons to make a metal numeral flip up in a glass window. Or just hide Matchbox or Hotwheels cars in the coin slots.

“There they go, never walking this way” said my Grandfather Paco standing in front of the store at 90 Church Avenue. “This side of Church Avenue is invisible, this store may as well be in the middle of the woods up in the country”. “With all their money in their pockets, they just walk to their castles in the sky on Ocean Parkway”. “The people that walk past this store are the working class poor, who only look and never buy”. My Grandmother just looked at my Grandfather and said; “You mean just like us?” My Grandfather just shook his head and my Grandmother just kept working away, cutting patterns and sewing the beautiful silk shades and hoping for a miracle. Because she always believed that those who worked hard survived, and they both survived the Great Depression right here in New York City. My Grandfather Paco selling Good Humor ice cream off his back in Central Park and my Grandmother making hand made silk flowers from their apartment on Pearl street in downtown Brooklyn. Now the site of Metrotech. So there was going to be no giving up here, at least not without a fight.

I remember it was something like 1984 when we sold the cash register. I think my aunt listed it in the Buy Lines. And it must have weighed at least 100 pounds. My cousin Pete and I both helped the man carry it to his car. I think he gave us 25 dollars for it. He was opening up his own business somewhere here in Brooklyn, and he liked the old fashioned register. We tried selling the lampshade skeletons back in 1990, the man who looked at them thought they were beautiful, but the rust on them was too much and would only destroy the silk. When he was leaving we even offered them for free, he just smiled and said “no thanks”.

With rent being paid on time and little business coming in, the store closed about two years after it opened. There was no meat on this “cows tail”, and my grandfather Paco always had his reservations about that side of Church Avenue. And unfortunately he was right. My Dads 1957 Plymouth station wagon pulled up in front of 90 Church Avenue that day. All the contents of the store were hauled to our house at 399. The inventory was split between my aunt’s old room, the basement and the garage. A month later the store was for rent again.

The lamp shades made great props for parties when we wore them on our heads as teenagers. And not to mention there was always an endless supply of porcelain doll eyes for us to look into as kids, constantly worried that they would move, or blink.
I spoke to my aunt Dolores the other day, and she said the basic story about her mothers store could be summed up as “wrong place in the wrong time”. I laughed and told her that Grandma would have made a killing in today’s Park Slope with a store like that. She said that Grandma would have loved to open the store in Manhattan, but just couldn’t afford the rent.

But not all family stories have crash landings like “Isabel’s”. About ten years after my Grandmothers store closed, her niece Dolores and husband Buzzy opened up another place you may have heard of. Its still called the “Buzzarama” and managed to survive over forty years on the “cows tail” of Church Avenue.

And my Grandfather Paco, well he always believed real estate was your best bet and bought two hundred acres of land in upstate New York. Right before the store fiasco and just five years after he bought 399 East 4th. So “Isabel’s” was just a bump in the road, a bad decision, and a “wrong place at the wrong time”. Sure they lost money with the store and it made my Grandfathers face turn red at the dinner table. But hell, that one hundred pound cash register was sure fun to play with along with those dozens of lampshades on New Years Eve.

And like they say, if you never try, you'll never know.

Ron Lopez
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