Losing the fabric of Downtown


By Michele Herman

Until recently, if you needed to buy fabric in Manhattan, you could travel less than a mile in almost any direction and find a store that stocked what you were looking for. There were even three distinct fabric districts, each clustered with long, narrow stores smelling of sizing and cotton, where the person behind the counter with the big shears was likely to be fluent in Butterick, Vogue, McCall’s and Yiddish.

The Midtown district, concentrated at West 39th and 40th Sts., is holding steady. But a few years ago the Lower East Side district on Orchard St. was swallowed in a gulp by boutiques and fromageries. Right now, if you walk down Broadway on the blocks just below Canal St., you can watch the Downtown district disappear before your eyes, one closing sale after another.

Just a week ago P&S, the last great retail fabric store on lower Broadway — arguably in the whole borough — sent out an advance mailer to its customers with sad but inevitable news: its building has been sold, forcing the store to close. P&S is housed in a nondescript mid-block two-story building of the sort known as a “taxpayer,” which for a Manhattan fabric store is a giddy amount of space. Spanning both floors and the deep basement, P&S is Manhattan’s only complete needlework emporium, with a large selection of dress and upholstery fabrics, notions, trimmings, crafts, patterns and even a respectable knitting department. The developer who’s tearing down the building to put up a high rise feels giddy about the space, too, but that’s because it’s the centerpiece of a dream parcel: another two-story tear-down to the south and a landmarked building with transferable air rights to the north.

Mark and Isaac Spiegel, who are brothers, own the store, having taken it over from their father Harry when he died a few years ago. P&S has been at the present location at 355 Broadway just below Franklin St. for 14 years, and elsewhere on the block for another decade before that. The brothers expect to stay open about two more months.

Fabric runs deep in the Spiegel family. “My father’s family, before Hitler came to power, manufactured underwear in Lodz, Poland, which was the textile capital of Europe,” says Mark. When Harry, a Holocaust survivor, came to New York, he got a job as a hat and cap salesman and made a slight vertical move. “My father, may he rest in peace, used to have a cap shop at 656 Broadway. He came down to pick up his material in this neighborhood – corduroys, denims, twills, velvets.”

P&S always sold both retail and wholesale. But until the last seven or eight years, most of the area was largely wholesale, providing much of P&S’s supply. “Most of the people down here had contacts with the mills,” says Mark. “The mills would get an order for 15,000 yards, and there would be a little runover, which they would buy. They would sell the runover to manufacturers for the big houses Uptown, the ones that sold to Macy’s and the chain stores. There were people from Poland, and also from Armenia, Israel, Russia.”

But then a few years ago, most of the domestic mills shut down, drying up the wholesale supply. The Broadway stores survived, at least for a while, by shifting to retail. “My suppliers became my competitors,” says Mark. “It actually made the neighborhood more attractive, because people came down to shop. Where there’s competition, there’s business.”

This nondescript stretch of Broadway, once so well-suited for fabric jobbers with its large basements and easy truck loading, is now, of course, too valuable to support a fabric ghetto. The Spiegel brothers love what they do, but the prospects for relocation are grim. “Years ago they’d offer you a free month’s rent,” says Mark. “Now stores are sitting empty and the landlords don’t want to budge. Across the street they’re asking $1 million rent for the corner store. They’ll get it from a bank; the banks are going for the corners and price is no object. Now it’s just banks, furniture, Duane Reades and Starbucks.

“The beauty of our business is that we have a little of everything and it all works together,” continues Spiegel. “We’re like a supermarket that sells milk and juice and cheeses and cans of tuna. We could move into a much smaller space, but we won’t be able to carry everything, and will have to pay more. The question is: what to give up and how to make up the difference?”

Mark Spiegel, 42, has other questions too. He doesn’t yet know what he and his brother, 44, will do if no viable space turns up. Both have young children. “If it were a good business,” Mark says, “I would like to see the kids take over, but it’s not a growing business. A lot less people have time to sew.”

The Spiegels are observant Jews, as any customer who’s tried to shop after 2 p.m. on a Friday knows. “If we can’t find space, we’ll leave it up to God, and hopefully he’ll send us in the right direction,” says Mark. “We took good care of the employees. We like to treat people the way we like to be treated. We were flexible, and took returns. We have a good name, thank God.”