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LES Exhibit Resurrects 100 Years of NYC Shop Life

By Serena Solomon | December 3, 2012 4:50pm

LOWER EAST SIDE — A new exhibition at the Tenement Museum recreates more than 100 years of local stores that once operated out of the museum's historic Orchard Street building.

"Shop Life," which opened Monday, explores the waves of immigrants that established their new lives on the Lower East Side through the businesses they ran. The exhibition has recreated a life-sized German saloon that once served beer out of the museum's 97 Orchard Street tenement building in the late 19th century — and also highlights stores from other eras such as an 1890s kosher butcher and a 1970s undergarment store.

"With the opening of Shop Life, we invite visitors to explore the individual stories of 97 Orchard Street shopkeepers," said the museum's president Morris Vogel, in a statement.

The exhibition has been a work in progress for the museum since 2006 and brings together artifacts, store replicas, and a state-of-the-art multimedia presentation to transport visitors into different businesses of times past.

"Through these businesses, immigrant entrepreneurs and their customers forged new American identities and made the United States an entrepreneurial nation," said Vogel.

The exhibition recreates the beer saloon of John and Caroline Schneider who immigrated to America in the 19th century and opened up shop on Orchard Street.

Visitors can explore the dinning room, kitchen and private quarters of the family, and learn how the Schneiders' business served as a community gathering space for Bavarian immigrants at the time.

The museum also uses the exhibit to educate on how the museum gathers accurate information about the Lower East Side's past.   

"That's what we do on this tour is — you see how we know what we know," said Sarah Litvin, a senior education associate at the museum who worked on "Shop Life."

In 1992, while the museum was excavating its rear yard, a broken beer stein was unearthed.  This find was paired with a Nov. 11, 1864 advertisement in the city's German newspaper, the Staats-Zeitung, announcing the opening of the saloon.

While Schneider’s saloon is recreated, the stories of other business are largely told through recovered objects.

"They [the objects] are portals into these stores," said Litvin.

For example, a brick, along with a narration, photos, and newspaper clippings in the multimedia presentation, compliment the exhibit on Goldie Lustgarten's kosher butcher store and the story of when it came under attack by customers in 1902. 

"This talks about the butcher shop when a riot ensued after the price of meat went up,” said Litvin, adding that it was enraged Jewish women from the neighborhood who began throwing bricks through the store's windows one night.

The Lower East Side continues to attract immigrants intent on carving out a living through small businesses, organizers noted, and the Shop Life exhibition captures that, too.

The multimedia presentation zeros in on current store owners such as Delaware Tazul, a Bangladeshi immigrant who currently operates a hat and perfume store a few blocks north on Orchard Street.

"We are exploring how having a small business fits into the American dream," said Litvin.