When I visited Tip Top Shoes in the summer of 2015, the store was celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary. Danny Wasserman proudly showed me the most recent edition of Footwear News, which was essentially dedicated to Tip Top. There were messages from countless sponsors in the shoe world, congratulating the Wasserman family for their longevity. Sitting down with Danny and his children, Lester and Margot, who are in charge of West NYC and Tip Top Kids respectively was an absolute pleasure.
Having grown up just a block away, Lester and Margot were immersed in the business even as toddlers. In high school, both began working at the store with their dad. Lester was immediately drawn into the world of shoes, learning as much as he could with the ultimate goal of opening his own sneaker shop, West NYC, a few doors down. Lester explained to me that Tip Top already sold sporty designer men's shoes, but that he expanded this concept into a trendier store in 2007. Margot, on the other hand, knew that she wanted to work in retail, but began her career with Ralph Lauren. She stayed there through the dot-com revolution and then returned to work for her father.
Included in the copy of Footwear News was a picture of how the store looked decades ago. Display cases took up the first few feet on either side of the door. Danny's grandfather originally opened the store after coming to the United States from Israel. He chose to buy the little shoe shop, which had been uptown in Riverdale, from an elderly German couple. The family then moved the store to 72nd Street. "Things were very different," Danny explained to me. "People were less affluent, there were fewer options, and every shoe in the store was in the window." He told me that at one point there were two black shoes and two brown shoes for men, and that was what customers had to choose from. Expanding on the neighborhood's history, Danny said that the street was frequented by pimps. "We had white boots with fur at the time that we couldn't keep in stock."
Later, the store was expanded both forward (eliminating the window displays) and back. Today, Tip Top continues to have a loyal following, many from the next generation of shoppers. Having walked so many streets in Manhattan, Tip Top has been a wonderful reminder to me that the old world concept of customer service, with a warm staff who have been working with the Wassermans for years, still exists. This thinking was solidified when I asked the family why they never considered expanding to another location. The response from Danny simply stated that they never wanted to spread themselves too thin. "The reason for our success is because we're all here."
It was really touching to see how strong the glue is that holds the Wasserman family together. I was not surprised when I learned that Lester, Margot and their parents live in the same building, a block over on 72nd Street - but on different floors. Yes, Tip Top has been an incredible success story in the world of mom and pop stores, but not everyone has had the great fortune of such a beautiful family relationship. When I expressed this sentiment to Danny, he replied, "Everyone says how fortunate I am to have my kids, and they're right." He then went on to say with a warm smile, "I mean, my son chooses to work with me six days a week." Lester shook his head in agreement and responded, "And I am lucky to have the best possible teacher to educate me."
“Restaurants are a funny thing — I think most of us fall in and then some of us never leave, ” said Laura Bird, who spent decades working in and out of her uncle’s Southwestern eatery, Santa Fe, before taking over as the owner. Laura’s uncle, John Bird, initially set out to be a musician. However, “like most creatives in New York, he spent a lot of time working in restaurants in between gigs. ” He was a busboy at the casual Mexican joint, Cantina, on 70th Street for many years. Putting his dreams of stardom aside, John and a crew of coworkers he had befriended at Cantina chose to open a new place mere blocks away that would “elevate Southwestern cuisine. ” John later became the sole proprietor, and under his management, the business was able to straddle the line between attracting hotshot celebrities and serving as a warm, family restaurant. “So many people began bringing their kids to dinner and started a long-lasting tradition of dining at Santa Fe together, ” Laura shared. She fondly recalls her own early visits to her uncle’s restaurant. “It seemed like a game then. I remember the excitement of being allowed to use the soda gun for the first time. ” Little did she know that she would be a fixture at Santa Fe. Similar to her uncle before her, Laura graduated college with a theater major and the knowledge that she would need a side job to pay her rent. She went from working the coat check, to waitressing, to suddenly managing the entire restaurant. Though it may not be for everyone, Laura admitted that she loved the “vampire lifestyle — I could do what I loved during the day and then come here at night to do a different kind of show business. ”The family ties at Santa Fe do not stop at Laura and John. The chef of over a decade, José Gonzalez, appointed his son, Danny, as his second-in-command. Together, they dish up traditional Mexican foods as well as American staples and do their best to abide by John’s cardinal rule: consistency. “It’s easy to make something once, but the real goal is to keep cooking it the same way every time. We try to ensure that when people order a dish, it is the same flavor that they fell in love with when they first tried it a week or even ten years ago. ” Just as notable are Santa Fe’s margaritas, which have “a reputation of their own as our shining superstar. ”As for John, after devoting decades of his life to Santa Fe, he “took a bow from his restaurant journey” during the COVID-19 pandemic and entrusted Laura and her husband, Alex Fresqued, to keep running the show. In a heartwarming twist of fate, Santa Fe’s landlord turned out to be equally as fond of this neighborhood gem as its patrons, and he came on as a partner to help keep it alive.
It does not matter what I am looking for, I always stop by Stationery and Toys first, certain that I will find what I need. Sometimes I find myself laughing out loud when I ask either of the owners of this fantastic old world shop, a father and daughter, for the item that I am in search of that day, and they answer "of course we have it. " With its simple name and treasure trove of items for children and adults alike, it is one of the last of its kind, and it makes me happy simply to wander the aisles. "I used to sell wholesale to Hallmark stores, " Larry Gomez, the founder, shared with me one day. "Now there aren't places like this anymore. " On the day that I visited with the Manhattan Sideways team, Larry took the time, in between ringing customers up for paper, pens, puzzles and party supplies, to tell us how the store began. He said that his daughter, Donna Schofield, came home from college to help him in the wholesale business. As Larry tells it, Donna said, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, I don't want to sit in a warehouse anymore. I want to work in retail. " Donna, when I spoke to her, tells it a little differently. She says, "I was talking to the same people every day with very little sight of daylight. I wanted to work in a store. "Either way, the outcome was a positive one. Larry gave Donna her wish in 1988 by opening Stationery and Toys. One day, I asked her what it was like having children while working around toys. She said, "My son thought the warehouse was Santa Claus's section. " The boy, who is now fully grown, knew to stay away. His younger sister, though, needed more convincing not to play with the toys. Donna gave the keys to the store to her brother-in-law for a while in order to spend more time with her family, but in 2009, she returned. "She's the big cheese, now, " Larry declared. Today, during the week, when a customer walks into the store, they will see Donna behind the counter and on the weekends it is Larry who is there, allowing his daughter to remain at home. "I'm the Saturday Sunday man! " he said with a grin. Donna's son, however, has started coming in on weekends to work with his grandfather, while he studies to become an electrician. It is this sense of family that Larry believes has saved their store. Donna and Larry form a friendly pair of faces for neighbors to recognize from year to year. He says that they still see many regulars from when the store first opened, though as Larry put it sadly, "there are many that we've lost. " He brightened, however, when he told me about the men and women who come in with their children. Larry recognizes many as having been frequent shoppers when they were kids themselves. He considers himself quite fortunate to have stayed in business through the years. When he first started, he explained, the area was known as "Needle Park" and in order to stay out of danger, people got out of the neighborhood by six in the evening. Now, Larry embraces the fact that the street is a place where families can safely thrive. When speaking with Gary - a sales assistant who has been with the store "for a long time" - I asked him how they decide what to stock, since the inventory seems to be infinite. He replied, "Donna gets it word of mouth, through the kids. The best thing to do is to listen to them. " Donna agreed, saying "If I get asked for an item three times, I get it. " Just before we were leaving, we witnessed a beautiful yet typical moment when Donna noticed a little boy eying a batman figurine on the counter while his mother was making a purchase. Donna sweetly handed the toy to him and told him that it was now his. Neighborhood kindness and generosity is alive and well at Stationery and Toys.
Acker Merrall & Condit Company changed its name to Acker Wines in 2020. I thought I misheard Anna, a member of the Acker Merrall team, when she said the company had been around since 1820. There was no misunderstanding: Acker Merrall is the oldest continuously operating wine merchant in the country. Anna even showed me a framed list on the wall that detailed the provisions of the Titanic. Sure enough, wine from Acker Merrall was listed. Anna explained that they were specifically known for stocking ships and that in the early 1900s, there were twenty-nine locations scattered along the coast, stretching as far south as Baltimore. Not only that, but the company sold fine food and housewares along with wine. As Harper, another member of the Acker Merrall team, joked, "It was perfect for when you think, 'Hmm... I need some whiskey and some chairs. '"Sadly, after Prohibition was repealed, a law was passed in New York requiring liquor stores to have only one location. It was also decided that no food items were allowed to be sold in a liquor shop. This meant that Acker Merrall had to choose whether it wanted to be a wine store or a grocery store. The original Acker Merrall family decided to take over the food and housewares departments and sold the alcohol operations to the Kapon family, who still run the company - John Kapon is currently the owner, and has been on West 72nd since 1985. Today, Acker Merrall is best known as the largest wine auctioneer in the world, with its strongest support coming from New York and Hong Kong, since China has become the biggest consumer of wine worldwide. There are beautifully bound books in the back of the store that have carefully documented these sales over the years. In addition to the auctions, the store has regular tasting events and invites importers and producers from different wine companies to share their goods with the community. While Acker is "pretty global, " they focus on a lot of old world wines, especially French. Harper credits the company's attention to detail and customer service with its longevity. Acker offers services that go above and beyond, such as free delivery to the Hamptons and Fire Island during the summer months. It also helps that Acker sources rare wines from many countries around the world. One day, I was with a member of the Manhattan Sideways team who recognized a bottle that his father had purchased while on vacation in Argentina. James excitedly said, "My dad loved this wine, but has never been able to find it again. " Of course he had to buy a bottle to take home to him. Before we left, Harper showed me a picture of New York City from the early 1900s. Behind a horse-drawn carriage and a pile of barrels, I could see the sign for Acker Merrall. In a city where shops open and close faster than I can discover them, it was refreshing to find a business that has managed to stay afloat for almost two centuries.
"It's good to see you, and it's good to be seen, " Paul Whitman said to Mrs. Lloyd, who has been a regular at Fischer Bros. & Leslie for the last fifty years. From across the shop, Paul's brother-in-law Steve Niederman smiled and said, "Mrs. Lloyd, from 57th Street! " Paul wrote down Mrs. Lloyd's order in his big book of house accounts and she was on her way. Over the course of the thirty minutes that we spent in this butcher shop, we witnessed many scenes like this. A regular would arrive, be greeted by name, place an order, pay via their "house account, " maybe set up delivery, and be off to their next errand. It is something that does not happen everyday, especially in New York. Fischer Bros. & Leslie, which has been in business since 1949, has proudly served three, sometimes four generations of families, and vice president and partner Paul Whitman has gotten to know most of them throughout his tenure with the shop, thanks in part to their commitment to the house account system. Fischer Bros. & Leslie does take cash, checks, and the occasional credit card, and it does have a website, but Paul encourages everyone to open a house account. "You get to know the people this way, " he told me. They will call a customer to let them know that one of their favorites is in stock: "We have some rib steak, just what you like. " The store even accommodates their regulars by preparing seasonal foods throughout the year, if demand warrants. Partner Yisroel Brown told us there is an older couple that loves their gazpacho, even in the wintertime, so "we'll make a batch for them, " and then added, "Just like latkes are not just for Hanukkah. "Paul has been a part of the Fischer Bros. & Leslie family ever since he married Leslie's daughter Marcy, whom he met in college. After graduate school at The Stern School of Business at NYU, Leslie invited Paul to work at the store while he got his resume together. "That was thirty-five years ago, " Paul told me. The full-service kosher butcher shop also prepares a large variety of Jewish favorites in-house, including matzo ball soup, which was initially prepared for Marcy one day years ago when she wasn't feeling well, but then became so popular that it was added to the menu. Paul went on to say that they set a wall on fire making the soup, which spurred them to build a kitchen. Another fire occurred years later, just before Passover, when someone left a brisket in the oven. Luckily, Paul was staying in the family's office upstairs at the time, and a neighbor (who knew he was there, thanks to his motorcycle parked out front) alerted him to the fire, and a Passover crisis was averted. When I walked out of this old world shop, Jenna, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, turned to me and said, "My family has been in New York City for over a hundred years, and I have heard them tell stories of places like Fischer Bros. & Leslie, places where a customer was greeted by name, where money only changed hands at the end of the month, where quality of product went hand-in-hand with quality of service and character, but I had never experienced it myself. Wait until I tell my Grandma that a place like the ones she reminisces about still exists. " (Good thing they deliver to Brooklyn. )
“We are beer nerds, not beer snobs. ” That is how Bo Bogle, the general manager of Gebhard’s Beer Culture, and Peter Malfatti, its beverage director, would describe the wood-furnished, cozy bar and restaurant that they opened in the summer of 2016, featuring various local and foreign artisanal beers on tap. The people behind Gebhard’s Beer Culture - the sister restaurant to Beer Culture on 45th Street - are as enthusiastic about beer as they are about educating customers. Because many of the beers that they offer are unknown to the general public, Gebhard’s will always work to find the draught that best suits each customer’s palate. If one feels like tasting several selections, the beer flight - a tray of four small glasses - is a good choice. Along with the continuously changing list of beers, the kitchen offers an ample menu of munchies, many from Belgium, as this is where owner Matt Gebhard spent time as a foreign exchange student. I was enchanted to discover how playful the space is: Upstairs, there is a games room, complete with a dartboard, shuffleboard, Hacky Sacks, and BulziBucket. The decorations throughout the bar and restaurant are eclectic, with various beer signs and novelty items covering the walls. At the front, I discovered a nook full of records, as well as a well-loved bicycle helmet. Bo and Ryan, the bartenders on duty, matched the vibe of the restaurant with their jovial nature as they poured beers for the Manhattan Sideways team. They set out glasses of citrusy TarTan Ale, a Central Waters Brewing Co beer, and a fresh, hoppy Southern Tier 2x Tangier. The two men knew exactly what to select for a hot day in the city and enjoyed tag-teaming descriptions of each beer and brand. Bo explained to us that the motivation behind Gebhard's Beer Culture is essentially a “passion for the local beer market. ” With the recent proliferation of local breweries around the city and in the rest of the country, Bo feels that “individuals are making great beers and that should be acknowledged. ” However, he believes it is not enough to simply have them on tap, but rather, the bartenders should teach customers about the local beer scene. Beer Culture’s objective is as much educational as it is to host many good nights with friends. When asked about the one thing that he would like customers to know about their new bar, Bo grinned and said: “the second beer always tastes better than the first. ”
With its prime 72nd Street location, I have passed by Malachy's Donegal Inn almost daily, but had never stepped inside. I was always waiting for the day when I would be working on this street, so that I could go in with the Manhattan Sideways team and have a good time. And that is exactly what happened. "Looks can be deceiving, believe me, " owner Bill Raftery immediately said when we popped in during the lunch hour in the middle of the week. He continued to speak lovingly and confidently of his pub, which has been in business since 1989. "This bar has the best pub food of any like it in the area, " Bill stated. Looking around, we were pleased to find the old wooden bar packed from end to end. According to Bill, most of his lunch customers are crew guys from local theaters like The Beacon and Lincoln Center, and "they are loyal. " Engaging in conversation with more than a dozen men and women, we learned a lot about Bill, and the warm environment that he has built. As Bill continued to serve people from behind the bar, he spoke of how much the neighborhood has changed since he purchased Malachy's. On Saint Patrick's Day, the area used to be blanketed in green bar-goers. "You could not move in this neighborhood the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. There's nothing like seeing them blow up those balloons. " Hikes in parking and travel costs have drastically reduced business on both of those days, he lamented. Still, he brightened up when pointing to the crowded bar, and said how his regulars are certainly devoted customers. Quite busy, he told us to stop by for a drink sometime soon, and headed into the kitchen.
Though the main location for Westsider Books, which opened in the 1980s, is on Broadway, the Westsider "record store" on 72nd Street did not come about until 2007. Every corner of the store is packed to the rafters with interesting finds in different genres of music and literature. In a world that is quickly becoming digital, Westsider prides itself on selling records, VHS tapes, CDs, DVDs, sheet music, postcards, and countless paperbacks. Westsider's adherence to older practices also means that customers can make trades and sell used books (though mainly at the Broadway location). Having lived on this street for a number of years now, and having owned my own bookstore, I continuously lose myself in the shelves full of rare, fascinating items, and can easily spend hours in the eclectic shop. Dorian Thornley and Bryan Gonzalez, the owners, believe that they may sadly be the last used bookstore on the Upper West Side, a neighborhood that was full of used-book stores at one time. For now, there appears to be enough bibliophiles in the area to keep the quirky shop in business. I am certainly someone who appreciates their commitment and wishes them well for many more years to come.