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June 27, 2009
Lexington Avenue Journal
A Shopping District That Takes You Back in Time

New York Times

Photographs by Richard Perry/The New York Times

Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side is a place where you can get your shoes resoled, your hair cut and your clothes dry-cleaned by someone who remembers your name and face and sometimes even your birthday.

There are three independent bookshops, four shoe-repair shops and three barbershops — one, York, has been there since 1928 and has the hand-clippers and shaving mugs to prove it. Then there are the retail rarities, like a custom bootmaker who charges $2,000 for basic men’s shoes, or more for a pair in alligator or hippopotamus.

“It feels Old World — with small spaces that are human size,” said Kirk Gerchberg, manager of Henry Miller Opticians, an eyeglasses shop older than the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg in “The Great Gatsby.” “All these places have a personality. Walk in and there’s some flavor. It may be to your liking or not, but there’s a flavor. In big spaces, it’s plain vanilla.”

The store’s customers, he said, are well educated and “want to speak with someone who’s knowledgeable and will help them.”

Between 61st and 62nd Streets is Lexington Hardware, a store established in 1929 whose narrow, teeming aisles would not feel out of place in proletarian precincts of the Bronx. Its owner, Cliff Kahn, 37, is the great-grandson of the store’s Russian immigrant founder.

“I personally have been here 15 years, and very few things have come and gone on the block, and the customers are pretty much the same,” he said. “Service is a big thing. People come in with a list, and you go and get it for them instead of their going to Aisle 17.”

Such service, the shopkeepers say, stirs a loyalty that keeps customers coming back, good times and bad, rather than seeking out a supermarket or a Home Depot.

There are theories galore about how the avenue, despite citywide pressures to build tall and boxy, has retained its intimate mom-and-pop scale and grace while other commercial avenues along the Upper East Side have been transformed: Madison Avenue below 72nd Street has turned into a mall-like stretch of international designers, while Second and Third Avenues are increasingly flanked by glass high-rises whose ground floors house restaurants, bars and more than a few national retailers.

Deconstructing Lexington, city officials cite the preponderance of brownstones and stout but short apartment buildings with small commercial spaces; the avenue’s narrowness; the flinty loyalty of customers; the relative affordability of rents. Others point out that Lexington, by default, has long been the neighborhood shopping street for the affluent and generally older residents of the side streets and residential avenues, like Fifth and Park.

Mr. Gerchberg, the manager of Henry Miller Opticians, points out that unlike Second and Third Avenues, Lexington never had an elevated subway line. When those were torn down, those avenues became ripe for high-rise development.

“What’s kept Lexington Avenue like it is is that the buildings haven’t changed that much,” Mr. Gerchberg said. “The buildings are not that new and not that tall.”

Whatever the explanation, residents worry that Lexington’s humble days may be numbered. On the corner of 86th Street, a 17-story building is being completed that will feature an H & M clothing store. That newcomer was absorbed with comparative stoicism because 86th Street has always been a bustling thoroughfare, and already has a Barnes & Noble, a Petco and a Best Buy.

In December, the Kean House, a baronial 1920s stucco mansion at 65th Street, was torn down. Landmarks officials had determined in June 2008 that it did not merit protection, but critics say the owner had destroyed significant architectural flourishes while the commission dawdled. Now a new apartment house is expected to rise to the full zoning limit of 17 stories, and it may also house a large retailer.

“You do wonder whether this will be a game-changer for the neighborhood,” said Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, who issued a report in January recommending strategies to retain mom-and-pops.

Concern about development is why Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District is seeking to designate two more stretches of the avenue for preservation — roughly 61st to 65th Street and 71st to 75th Street. On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission scheduled hearings for the fall on designating most of the requested sites, which advocates took as a hopeful sign of the commission’s predilection.

“We’re trying to preserve the historic architecture of Lexington Avenue, but a happy side effect is maintaining the mom-and-pop shops,” said Seri Worden, executive director of the Friends group.

At Albert & Son, Robert Moffa slices the steaks by hand just as his father did after he founded the store in 1961. A machine “tears everything up,” Mr. Moffa said.

“A lot of my customers I’ve known since I was 8 or 9 years old, and I’m 50,” he said.

Tru-Form Shoes, now between 64th and 65th Streets, has been around in one spot or another under one name or another since 1878 (it began as Oliver Moore Bootmaker). The Carolinas-accented Paul Moorefield, who owns the store with Joan Silverman, may be the only shoemaker in town who wears a tie and a stainless white apron. The staff of 12 turns out just 20 pairs of shoes a week and spends an hour or so fitting each customer’s feet for a pair of permanent lasts — an extra $1,000. Custom calfskin women’s shoes start at $1,200.

The shop’s customers have included David Rockefeller, James Gandolfini, Katharine Hepburn and a Saudi prince or two. The wealth of his customers, Mr. Moorefield said, makes the store “recession proof.”

There are two Starbucks outlets and a Duane Reade, but they’re near subway stops like the busy 77th Street station next to Lenox Hill Hospital. The avenue has several one-of-a-kind pharmacies like J. Leon Lascoff, which, as its sign says, was established in 1899. Neil’s Coffee Shop, with its oblique red neon sign, has been around for 50 years. It latest owner, Nick Kaloudis, theorizes that some landlords prefer Lexington’s breed of small stores.

“If you have two stores in your building and one is empty, you’re in trouble,” he said. “If have five stores and one is empty you’re still O.K.”

The avenue charmed Valery Tsarikovsky, 56, an oil painter, into putting his easel up the other day at 82nd Street when he wanted to paint a streetscape.

“Lexington Avenue has a nostalgic feel,” he said. “It looks like Europe, it looks like Paris. Where else do you find a subject like that?”
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