Magazine | March 20, 2017, Issue

A City of Shopkeepers

A shopper hails a cab on a street in New York City. (Reuters photo: Jessica Rinaldi)

The city is full of walk-in businesses — shops, stores, eateries, bars, banks, fix-it places. That means the streets are full of business names. Many belong to chains — Victoria’s Pornderwear, WellsForger. Independent businesses generally opt for description, either generic — Sichuan Taste — or whimsical — Sichuan Flamethrower. A significant minority go by the name of the owner. Capitalism reverses the caste mindset of the Middle Ages, when occupations created surnames — Smith, Schneider, Zimmerman. Now names christen businesses. Sometimes the name outlasts the founder, staying on the signage and the website after the business has passed to a relative, or even an unrelated buyer. It is the new aristocracy — the Capets and Hapsburgs of commerce.

My wife and I have been going to the same contact-lens specialist for 40 years. The office has the most unprepossessing entrance, short of a gambling den: all-weather-carpeted steps descending from street level and hooking under the entry to the business above it (a restaurant). Inside all is bright, clean, and cheery.

Waiting rooms are the last redoubts of the print magazine. There I catch up on last summer’s listings mag, full of news about the latest LGBTQ taquerias. The technology of the examination room is reassuringly last century. To read the diminishing nonsense letters, you slide a pair of goggles over the bridge of your nose, blanking alternate eyes with a disc the size of a poker chip. The slit lamp still uses the ground lenses that Galileo used to see the moons of Jupiter. The autorefractor is a more modern gizmo, computerized and housed in bland molded plastic. But the image this one makes you look at is strictly retro, a farm at the end of a country lane, like a poster for Oklahoma! The walls are decorated with diplomas and grandchildren. Back in the waiting room, behind the counter where the secretary sits, stand actual file drawers, filled with actual cards recording our eye-stats. People, when does it go on a thumb drive? No matter: The contact lenses are first rate (no fake views). The first name of the business is Theo, but the first name of the only specialist who has ever looked at us is Susan. Did he teach her? Employ her? I have never asked. As far as I am concerned she can keep the name as long as she keeps the file drawers.

Down the street from the psychoanalytic institute where my wife once worked is a jeweler. The psychoanalytic institute is long gone (haven’t the insurers told you? meds fix everything). But the jeweler remains. My wife has witnessed the evolution of this business. The founding jeweler and eponym was a Jewish man, named Max. He looked, my wife says, like Einstein (I never saw him). His assistant was a Jain named Peri. Peri has owned the place all the years I have accompanied my wife there, though it is still Max whose name greets you.

The shop is a narrow slot. Counter on one side, wall cabinets on the other, displaying items for purchase. Coins were my youthful objects of desire, before I began to collect bylines and girlfriends (better at the former), so I still examine the wares hoping to find a Flying Eagle cent piece. Sometimes a buffalo nickel or a Mercury dime gets welded onto a ring (what a waste of a decent coin!). Most of the pieces that have any meaning are astrological, or souvenirs: Gemini, the flag of Brazil. I once saw some sort of skiing medal from the Thirties — someone’s achievement, sold by someone else’s indifference. The only signs of Peri’s religion, besides his profession — jewelry is a Jain specialty — are his calendars, which depict personages I take to be divine, or at least mythological.

Peri is the master of painstaking repair, the savior of my wife’s ample collection of earrings. Can you turn these from pierced to clip-on? Can you make the clips tighter? Can you can you can you? He always can.

Around the corner from our apartment building is a shoe-repair shop. It is the anchor of the block. The medical-supplies place on the left has become a bicycle shop, to the right the Rosicrucians have given way to a German cultural center. Shoes remain, firmly planted. A large neon shoe sole in the window tells you so. For many years the owner was a Greek named John. His work was careful, imaginative, and reasonable. Then he retired and left the shop, with his name, to his Colombian assistant, Ariel. Now Ariel runs it with his son. His work is careful, imaginative, and reasonable.

The shop is in two sections. In the back room are machines for serious polishing, for stretching, for who knows what. In the front is the high chair for a sit-down polish (another assistant handles that). Chairs to wait in while simple repairs are made. Two perpendicular counters with shoes ready to go, lined up side to side like airplanes at a gate. On the end of one counter, an honest-to-God mechanical cash register. We’ll all be paying with retinal scans soon enough, but transactions seem more certain when they go ka-ching. On a wall hangs a Spanish prayer asking God to bless this business.

The changes of personnel show the triumph of liberalism: a man fits contact lenses, then a woman; Jews and Greeks, then Jains and Colombians, tend our ears and feet. The emeritus names tell a different story, the power of the past. Suppose the names had been changed, the past still cast its spell: The newbies do their work in the same spot, with many of the same techniques, often the same tools.

One of Benjamin Franklin’s best stories was about a hatter, John Thompson, who designed a sign: John Thompson, Hatter, Makes and Sells Hats for Ready Money. When his friends got through editing (why say “makes”? who cares who makes the hats?) all he had left was John Thompson and a picture of a hat. All you need.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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A City of Shopkeepers

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