The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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East Side Shopping.



From The New-York Daily Tribune, July 28, 1901.

A banana cart.
date unknown
Courtesy of the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery.

It is generally conceded that to practice properly the art of shopping in any place at any time requires leisure and experience, and if this is true of the great stores, it is infinitely more pithy in regard to many of the smaller establishments on the East Side. To decide on the style and quality one wants and on the price one is to pay may be the only tasks of the well-to-do shopper, but in out-of-the-way parts of the city the element of bargaining enters into the transaction further to complicate the affair. The would-be purchaser must have not only a clear idea of what he wants, but also a knowledge of the value of the various prices of goods which are set before him. The price asked storekeeper is certainly not what be willing to accept under proper moral suasion, and it is necessary for the buyer to judge just how far it is safe to push the seller without bringing on himself a torrent of abusive language and prematurely closing the deal. In many of the East Side shops it is safe to assume that the seller will accept about one-half price he asks at first. To accomplish however, great tact and patience is required. The worm is likely to turn, and, after all, time, even on the East Side, has a certain value.

It is not uncommon to see two men in some small shop haggling for ten or fifteen minutes over the price of a suit of clothes, for instance. Eight dollars is the price demanded by the shopkeeper. The buyer laughs pleasantly and suggests the means four dollars. With indignation in his honest eye the storekeeper states emphatically that he means what he said, he sells his goods as cheaply as anybody, and that the clothes cost him $7.50, anyway. Automatically, the customer repeats "Four dollars," and he gazes calmly while the man rages. This sort of thing will be kept up for ten minutes or so. Finally the situation is that the one has gone up to $4.50 and the other has come down to $6. About this time the customer will shake his head, apparently wondering at the depravity of traders in general, and will leave the place. Then the storekeeper rushes the door and shouts, "Five an' a half!" The departing purchaser, whose walk has be suspiciously slow, will return and say, with an engaging smile, "Five," and the deal will be closed.

The whole transaction, irrespective of the choosing of the suit, has taken perhaps fifteen minutes. Neither grudges the time for the whole thing is sport to them - a case of finding foemen worthy of their steel - and they have enjoyed the combat. The "one-price" stores are tame in comparison; anybody can shop in them, even the women from uptown, who always hand over what is asked and have no spirit of sportiness discernible. Some good citizens of the East Side come, in time, to win a local reputation for their bargaining ability, and are sought after by their friends when there is any purchasing to be done.

Besides the bargaining, East Side shopping has much that is picturesque to recommend it. The vast majority of small shops have at the back a room or two in which the family lives. Without any eavesdropping it is possible to see much of the family life; indeed, not to see it one would have to be deaf and blind. On winter days, when the entrance of a breath of fresh air has been guarded against as if it entailed the plague, the odors of the last week's meals make a detective of another sense as well. In some of the shops, especially in neighborhoods which cherish the herring and the national sauerkraut, intending purchasers who may have some slight prejudice against these honest articles of diet have to make their purchases between gasps, as it were, retreating to the door like whales, when it is absolutely imperative to draw breath. The worst of it is that to any person sentimentally inclined the poverty of the little household and its evident need of every cent that can be coaxed its way overbalances the discomfort of such shopping and lure the feet of dwellers on the East Side into these strongholds of unsavoriness.

It is not true that all these tiny shops are unpleasant to visit. In some of them one gets delightful glimpses of a well ordered and happy household. One shoe store, in particular, is a spot for pessimists to visit when they despair of humanity. A settlement woman discovered the place and spread the knowledge of it among her friends. She had taken a boot there for some mending, being of an economical turn of mind, and the keeper of the store had said that the work would cost 25 cents, which seemed entirely reasonable. When she returned for the boot she put down the quarter and was struck dumb with astonishment to have the man hand her a nickel, with the remark: "There wasn't as much work on it as I thought there would be. 'Taint worth a quarter." As she said afterward, it seemed like spoiling an idyl to make him take the money; so she pocketed the nickel and went on her way wondering.

Of course, virtue had its reward, and some evil-minded persons suggest that the man knew he would secure her patronage forever and a day at the cost of a nickel. She stoutly maintains that this is a libel, for he could not possibly have realized the extent of the sentimentality of the person with whom he was dealing. It is a trifle uncomfortable at times to be restricted to one small East Side shoe shop, but she declares that she feels quite like a criminal if she wanders away to the abodes of fashion on the West Side. The honesty of the proprietor is not the only attraction she has found in the little shop. The wife is a comfortable woman of generous proportions, and the name of her family is legion. As she tries on the shoes of the customers, she shouts directions of a domestic nature back into the obscurity of the rear room, and she never fails to accompany the order with a term of endearment. "Keep that baby away from the stove, my love," she will direct, and a sweet little maiden will appear and grasp the wandering youngest scion of the house. Or it will be "Julius, dear, look that the soup won't burn," and so on. Everybody is invariably cheery and affectionate. It is a real tonic to a jaded soul just to step into the small shop.

One woman who has shopped a good deal on the East Side says there is more occasion for gratified vanity in an hour among these small shops than in any other occupation she knows of. "You walk in," she explained, "and you say, in a queenly fashion, that you want an umbrella, adding, 'The best in the store,' and every member of the family will run to look at you and to seek the desired umbrella, making you feel like the most bloated kind of aristocrat. When the umbrella comes, you pay $1.69 and go away covered with glory. In the same way you step into a shop which is not one-price, ask for a handkerchief or two, and pay 15 cents apiece for them without the slightest haggling, which brings blessings on your head and gives you a fine sense of superiority. There is nothing like it."

Certainly one extracts more amusement out of shopping on the East Side than in wandering through the great stores which don't expect you to beat down the price of a paper of pins, and in which you are merely one of the crowd.







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