LOWER EAST SIDE — Our grandparents would not recognize the Lower East Side today, with its trendy bars and art galleries. That is, unless they walked down Orchard Street where a number of historic businesses are still in operation.
They're a reminder of an era when shoppers flocked to the Lower East Side for heavily discounted brand names rather than indie designers and edgy boutiques. Here are some of the oldest stores still operating on Orchard Street.
135 Orchard St. between Delancey and Rivington streets, 212-254-7275
With a renovation completed just a few months ago, you would never know that this store has been here since 1920. In the late '70s, the Altmans retired and sold the business to Bettinger's Luggage Shop, an even older neighborhood store on Rivington Street that was founded in 1914. The Bettinger family consolidated the two businesses into this location, where celebrities like Fred Gwynne and James Gandolfini regularly shopped. Apparently, Jerry Lewis was once almost buried under a tower of suitcases while picking out luggage at the warehouse.
73 Orchard St. between Grand and Broome Sts, 212-226-1629
This tiny lingerie shop has a bit of a cult following; rumor has it that the staff can size a customer just by looking at them. The third generation family business was founded in 1924 and specializes in underwear and sleepwear from European designers like Wolford, Chantelle, La Perla, and Rigby & Peller. With most of the stock kept in stacked boxes, this is a no-nonsense shopping experience without any frills. Still, customers swear by it for impeccably fitting bras and brusque-yet-thorough customer service.
M. Katz and Sons
20 Orchard St. between Canal and Hester Sts., 212-677-8528
Although it's been on Orchard Street for less than ten years, this furniture business has been in the neighborhood since 1906. Meilich Katz began by selling furniture out of a tenement building. The fourth generation family business then occupied two different Essex street locations before landing in the current spot — it spent about 50 years at 146 Essex, which is now Beauty & Essex. The most recent move was due to the rising cost of rent, but it was important to the current owners to stay in the neighborhood. "The Lower East Side is part of our history," says Meilich's grandson Marty Katz. "It's part of the fabric of the place."
108 Orchard St. at Delancey St., 212-477-3796
This hundred-year-old business has a long history on Orchard Street, starting with Hyman Moscot selling ready-to-wear glasses from a pushcart. He opened his first brick-and-mortar shop on Rivington Street in 1925 and moved the store to Orchard Street in 1936. The shop stayed there for 77 years until the building was sold and it relocated across Delancey street. Moscot's stylish frames are widely known, but few are aware that the fifth generation family business has an in-house band called the Moscot All-Stars, who regularly perform at company events and parties.
Cohen's Fashion Optical
117 Orchard St. at Delancey St., 212-674-1986
A longtime competitor of Hyman Moscot, Jack Cohen also started off selling specs from a pushcart on Orchard Street in 1927. He opened his first shop at the intersection of Orchard and Delancey Street, directly across the road from where Moscot stood for 77 years. Moscot has now moved across the road, but Cohen's still occupies its original space — although the company is now a franchise with more than 100 locations.
69 Orchard St. between Grand and Broome Sts., 212-925-6112
Since Harry Zarin founded this store in 1936, it's been located on Grand, Allen and two different Orchard Street addresses. It now takes up three levels of its current building, where you can browse thousands of colorful fabric bolts as well as order custom decor such as window treatments and upholstery. In the '80s, a huge fire in the store forced the family to move all their inventory to their storage warehouse. Harry's son Bobby used a bullhorn to advertise the new location, which was only legal if he included a public service announcement. So he would drive through the streets announcing “Come visit Harry Zarin Company’s new fabric warehouse — and don’t forget to vote!”