07 April 2014

The Windows of Ben Freedman Gent's Furnishing

When voices like mine bemoan an old business going down, we don't always mourn the event for the same reasons. Some businesses are missed because they are classic purveyors of their type (the Stage Deli, for instance). Some because they are part of the fabric of a particularly neighborhood (the Hat restaurant, or Milady's). Some because they did one special thing better than everyone else (Joe's Superette, with their prosciutto balls). Some because they perform a bygone task that nobody else does anymore (typewriter report, for one). And some just because they are remarkably old (Manganaro Groceria Italiano).

Take Ben Freedman Gent's Furnish, one of the last old-school garment hawkers left on the Lower East Side. It's been there on Orchard since 1927, which makes it pretty old. But it's not a classic. The name Ben Freedman is not normally on the lips of everyday New Yorkers. It is not a famous store, and it does not carry the best clothes in town.

What it does have that few other stores do anymore is a classic street level facade, with an indented entrance framed on both sides with lovely, graceful, sloping window displays.

Today, when a small, everyday, independent business opens up, they throw up a boxy front, a plastic awning and they're done. Open for business! That was not the case in the past. A century ago, even the most modest business wanted to show a handsome face to the street. Decorative touches were put wherever they could be fit in. Slanted corner entrances, canopies, black or cobalt glass near the foot of the store, metal pillars, lanterns, neon signs, street clocks. Two of the most extravagant touches—extravagant in that they robbed the shopkeeper of square footage on the sales floor in the name of attractiveness—were the indented entrance and roomy window displays.

Very often such facades were favored by clothing and shoe stores, all the better to show off their many wares to the public. I remember the old Knox Hats on Eighth Avenue had such a set up before it was torn down to make way for the New York Times tower.

Display cases such as Freeman has are almost never seen today, because, when the old businesses close, and new ones move in, the new owners tear them down and extend the storefront to the sidewalk in the name of the bottom line.

So this is the reason I will be sad when Freeman inevitably goes the way the Dodo: one less elegant storefront like this.

Freeman started as a pushcart seller, by the way. The store is still in family hands.

1 comment:

Mitch said...

Oddly enough, the only places that love these big glass windows filled with items are the electronic shops in midtown. I guess people still like to look at laptops in the windows, if not pants and ties.