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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Jay Walking

From the Vault Dept.: From the February, 1986, issue of Capital Region magazine, whose headline story, “Doesn’t Anybody Go Out Anymore?” was written by James Howard Kunstler, and which issue also offered Bill Heller’s profile of rising boxing star Mike Tyson. The Jay Street of today is a completely changed animal, and most of the establishments mentioned are long gone.


NEXT TIME YOU ARE on Jay Street in Schenectady, look up at the cornices of the buildings. They are enchantingly ornate, of a style at once commonplace and yet a charming reminder of an easygoing past. The heritage of the street, like the heritage of this and so many other cities, is revealed on the facings of the upper stories.

Then look down. You’ll see the current renovation that captures the spirit of the street’s 19th-century beginnings. We’re going to take a walk along Jay Street and meet some of the people who work here and some who socialize here. They’re very loyal to the street. We’ll discover why these loyalties exist.

Just off State Street, where Proctor’s Theater, the Carl Co. and most of Schenectady’s distinguished old businesses stand, you will find Jay Street – flanked on either side by a new retail space called Center City and a submarine sandwich shop. A few stores up on your right, a large blue and white sign, lettered with a flourish, hangs over the door of Carl’s Books.

The group that hangs out in Carl’s is discussing the arrival of Roger DePriest. Roger got the wanderlust last year and traveled to San Francisco, but his recent letters declared that city too unfriendly to newcomers and so he’s on his way back. For many months he had been a Jay Street regular, journeying from shop to shop with his head thrust forward and his hands in his pockets except when returning the wave of a merchant.

There is a sense of familiarity here that makes the street unique in this era of the shopping mall. The atmosphere is that of a friendly small town, something hard to find these days, and the person who greets you at the door is probably the one who owns the business. Were it not for amenities like electronic cash registers you might think you had stepped back in time.

As of now, Jay Street is not Schenectady’s prettiest thoroughfare. Below those nice upper stories are buildings that suffered from aluminum-and-plate-glass renovation 20 or 30 years ago. But the Jay-State Project, begun two years ago, effected some attractive changes. State Street was widened and new sidewalks and benches were installed; Jay Street was closed to vehicles and bricked over, and a row of lamps and saplings were planted where parking spaces used to be.

Skip Penk of Carl's Books
CARL’S IS A used-paperback store that relies on a steady trade of readers of light romances. Carl himself, known to his friends as Skip, is the second-generation owner; his father opened the business in 1979 with a store on State Street that he moved to Jay a couple of years later.

Skip is a tall man in his 30s with a youthful shock of dark hair. Easygoing and with a fast wit, he attracts a clientele that often comes into the store just to talk to him. When one of his regulars arrives he might share a joke – probably a shade off-color.

Skip leans against the counter working on a crossword puzzle. Shawn Flannery, an Irish singer-guitarist, sits on an upended wooden Coke-bottle crate. John Wilson, a burly antiques dealer, is looking through the science-fiction section. “Let’s give Roger a welcome-home party,”  says Shawn. “He gets in tomorrow.”

“I suppose you want to have the party here,” says Skip.

“Since you’re making the offer . . . ”

“I’ll get a cake,” says John. “We can write something on it.” The usual rude messages are discussed.

Shawn and John go across the street to the Center Stage Deli for take-out coffee, while they discuss plans for the party. Dave Kniskern, who has been operating the place for over five years, is tall and thin with a reddish beard: he looks like a young Max von Sydow. He designed a menu with a theatrical motif to tie in with Proctor’s. “Rare Performance,” for instance, is a roast beef sandwich; “The Critic” is made with (of course) sliced tongue. The inside of the deli – it seats about 50 – is decorated with autographed posters from shows that have played at Proctor’s.

Last summer, Dave put tables and chairs on the street. “I’ve always liked the idea of an outdoor café,” he says, “and it was pretty successful when people got used to seeing what I’ve got here. We just have to get them onto the street in the first place.”

This is a note echoed by some of his neighbors: the new look is not bringing enough customers. There is not the variety of stores that makes a mall attractive and some dismiss it as a street of shoe stores and booksellers.

But you won’t find a place like Center Stage in the malls. The food may look the same (but the Deli’s is better) but mall food is an afterthought, served with indigestible Muzak on the side.

You won’t find a place like Carl’s in the malls either. Books on shelves, books on tables, spines creased and a little dusty: it looks like a riot of disorder. It’s not. There are categories throughout the store and each volume has a home. If you want a specific title, don’t even bother to look. Ask Skip. He knows what he’s got.

That’s what the street is all about too. It may seem haphazardly thrown together, just another old street in an aging city. But it’s just this kind of street that suggests a sense of home. Shawn and John return with the coffees. Skip is entertaining Bill Kazmaier, another regular and a would-be writer. “How’s the novel coming?” asks Skip.

“Good,” says Bill, beaming through busted spectacles. He has a blonde beard, a red face and an Oliver Hardy rotundity. “My protagonist just met the woman he’s going to marry. They’ll get hitched in Chapter 24.”

“What chapter are you on now?”


“That’s nice.” Skip times it well, taking a beat with a drag on a cigarette. “I like a long courtship.”

People who write books don’t buy their reading material new, so Carl’s is a meeting place of scriveners who need a cheap read or a chance to chat with other struggling writers.

“We’re going to look around the street for some welcome-back gifts for Roger,” Shawn tells Bill, who decides to go along.

The Open Door Bookstore
HERE IS WHAT MAKES walking on Jay Street a joy: you have the luxury of strolling from store to store without dodging traffic but with the sky overhead – not the haughty ceiling of a mall. Coming out of Carl’s you can see the edge of Proctor’s marquee. Turn left and you pass the Owl’s Nest, a gift shop; Time Warp, selling antique clothing; a lawyer’s office; and the empty storefront where Ingrid’s Feinkost und Konditerei used to be. Ingrid closed her restaurant two years ago; rumor is that the landlord doesn’t want more food service in there.

“There just weren’t enough people coming in,” explains Ingrid Forst. “Schenectady doesn’t support its own businesses. And people from out of town who would go to Proctor’s, for instance, didn’t stay around long enough to discover the place. It’s not just me. Others on the street have been hurt.” She names B. Cornelius & Smith, a toy store that closed late last year. “People either didn’t know it was there or they weren’t interested in buying quality toys.”

Another former merchant, Mike Feldman, closed his tobacco shop and moved his business to Albany with bitter complaints about the street and the city.

“There’s a huge student market in Schenectady,” says Ingrid, “but I think 90 percent of the kids never leave the campuses. They go shopping when they get back home.”

Across from Ingrid’s – the sign still hangs there – is Graubart’s Jewelers. Walter Graubart, son of the founder, is an elderly man with the dignified manner of Wilfrid Hyde-White.

“A lot of people who hadn’t noticed the street before it was bricked over come in here now,” says he. “They’re attracted by it. It’s an unusual sight in a city like this. During the summer the Jay Street Merchants Association likes to have some kind of function on the street every week, and that’s very nice. That’s when I like to think of this store as ‘Graubart’s on the Park.”

He speaks with the authority of longevity: Graubart’s opened in 1897 when the store was further downtown. “When my father moved to Jay Street in 1918, people were asking him why he ‘moved to the country.’ I remember when this was a two-way street with horses and buggies on it.”

Graubart’s is the first stop for Roger’s friends. John buys a fancy fountain pen to encourage Roger to keep a journal of his travels. “He’ll be so scared of losing this that he won’t let it out of his sight,” is John’s justification of the expense.

Then it’s across the street and over a few doors to Orion Boutique, taking them past the health-food store Earthly Delights and Modern Shoe Repair. Orion’s owner, Joe Scott, has the appearance of a superannuated hippie. His long hair is graying and he wears small wire-rimmed glasses. The look suits his establishment, which stocks pipes and rolling papers, incense and underground comics. There also is a selection of good cigars in the newly installed humidor.

But Joe is a sharp businessman who has kept his place open for over 10 years. It’s one of the three or four oldest businesses on the street. “Things here were at their worst when I opened,” he says. “Downtown was declining and people didn’t seem to care. I think there were some errors of judgment on the part of the city fathers, who felt threatened whenever the college kids came downtown to shop. That attitude pushed the kids out to the malls. But they’re coming back now. The new look of the street attracts them.

“This pedestrian mall thing is a European concept that’s very big with architects right now, and I think there are about 20 of them around the state. Some of them work, like the one in Burlington. Some, like the one in Poughkeepsie, didn’t work out so well.”

Shawn examines the cotton shirts that hang on the back wall. “This is a folksinger’s shirt,” he says, selecting one. “Look at all the buttons on it. It’ll be perfect for Roger. It looks like it just came out of the hungry I.”

Mark Feldmann rings up the sale. “We’re a family,” he says. “Most of the stores on the street are small, family-run businesses. That’s a nice feeling.”

Bill never has met Roger but, being a writer, decides to give the fellow a book. So the trio continues down the street, past Paisa Miser, selling Indian clothing and accessories; past Robbins Opticians and Fountain o’ Fabrics, two recent arrivals; past the street’s most unusual combination of enterprises: Tommy Angers’ Sewing Machine Repair and Billiard Room.

Jim Parker, proprietor of Copy-Rite, gives Bill a wave. A person who writes needs to make copies, and Copy-Rite has a bank of copying machines as well as an offset operation.

Bibliomania specializes in rare and remaindered volumes. It’s quite a contrast to Carl’s; very neat and with every book carefully shelved or displayed. Some special first editions are in a glass case by Bill Healy’s desk. “It’s too early to tell what effect closing the street [to vehicles] has had and will have on the businesses,” is his opinion. “Last year was my best yet and sales this year are ahead even more. The character of the street is changing. It’s improving. I think it’s important to be thinking in terms of, like, five years from now. That’s when all the work will be paying off.”

He has run this store for four years. Part of the Jay State Project was the availability of state  money for the improvement of store facades, and Bibliomania got a new one. Healy publishes a catalogue of the rare items he has available, and his reputation among collectors is growing.

Bill buys Roger an inexpensive collection of George Booth cartoons but, when the three are back on the street, decides to keep it. So, still in need of a gift, he goes across to the Open Door  Bookstore, on the corner of Franklin.

This is another of the street’s older businesses, open for 16 years and still growing. At one time a hardware store was its neighbor but the Open Door now occupies both storefronts. This time Bill buys Roger a paperback of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.

FOR A COUPLE OF hours a day in winter, Jay Street gets a direct hit from the sun. It is almost noon and the air is warming. The sunlight reflects off the black enamel of the lampposts; it’s time to think about lunch.

There’s the Deli, of course, and the Subway shop, and Earthly Delights, which serves hot soup and good-for-you sandwiches. Earthly Delight’s present owner, Mary Swatt, has been running the 10-year-old store since 1981. “We have a pretty steady business,” she says. “I’m not sure if the health-food craze is really all that much of a craze, but we do get a lot of business from physical-fitness enthusiasts who jog inhere for a vitamin fix.”

The European Café, which only recently went out of business, will be sorely missed for its outdoor dining when the air is warm. On the other side of Franklin, where traffic does run along Jay Street, are the Executive Suite and DeWitt’s Cafeteria. Visit DeWitt’s some day to see the wonderful diner-style chrome that appoints the service area.

But the three decide to grab a warm booth in the Jay Tavern which, at the stroke of noon, will fill to capacity. That’s because it serves a hearty lunch that features such items as kielbasa and American chili. The room is long and skinny and dark; the place used to be a speakeasy and looks like it. The bar is towards the back, surrounded by booths. The TV set is on; the bartender checks the OTB network regularly; it’s comfortable. “This is a real whiskey-with-a-chaser-of-beer kind of place,” says John. “You don’t come here to sip a sloe gin fizz.”

The party takes place the following day. Roger’s People Express flight landed in Albany that morning. “I’m too old to hitchhike,” he explains.

He’s standing in Carl’s the way he did a year ago, in a ski jacket and watch cap, hands in his pockets. “The street looks good,” he says, nodding approval.

Bill arrives with a pot of stew. John has the cake, with “It’s About Time” written across it. Skip clears some books off the science-fiction table to setup the banquet.

They toast Roger’s return with styrofoam cups of coffee or soda. Some of the other merchants drop in for a slice of cake and to greet the prodigal. You can see that Roger is getting a little choked up; you can see that he has come back home.

Capital Region, February 1986

Sidebar: For Schenectady, a Festive February

SCHENECTADY’S MERCHANTS WILL BE encouraging you to take wooden nickels this month, for a good reason: those nickels are worth a dollar apiece.

During the citywide festival that runs February 6-9, many of the shops in the city will be issuing and redeeming “wampum.” The tokens are being issued as a bonus when you patronize the shops; you can then redeem each one for a dollar’s worth of product.

This festival, the second in what is planned as an annual tradition, kicks off as it did last year with Schenectady Mayor Karen B. Johnson riding to Albany on horseback.

A statue of Lawrence the Indian stands in Schenectady’s Stockade area. It commemorates an area hero, but the statue itself needs to be repaired. A specially commissioned lithograph of the statue was painted by local artist Joe Daniel and will be sold during the festival in a signed, limited edition of 500, with the proceeds going toward the statue’s restoration.

There will be Friday evening activities on Upper Union Street and in Central Park (a TGIF party is planned); Saturday evening a banquet will be held at the Ramada Inn on Nott Street.

Last year a contingent of Iroquois visited the YWCA with a dance exhibition and crafts fair; an encore is being planned this month as well as a return visit from the Albany-based Colonial militia.

Dr. Mary Drew will give a lecture on Iroquois Indians and New York settlers on February 6 at 7 p.m. at the Union College Library. Other lectures on historical topics will be held at the Schenectady Historical Society building, the Public Library’s Main Branch, and the Schenectady Museum on February 2, 9 and 16 respectively.

Other entertainment, food and crafts events are to be announced.

Capital Region, February 1986

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