Friday, August 1, 2014

Herman's Toy Story

It was a little slice of paradise, right in the middle of Brooklyn.

When I was a child, and my family would visit Dad's mother and sister in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood, there was only one store there that I cared anything about.  It was Herman's Toy Store, owned and run by a tall, thin, Jewish man named - not surprisingly - Herman.  His was a nondescript narrow storefront on a nondescript block in what was a nondescript neighborhood of blue collar families.  Before white flight, those families were mostly Scandinavian, with Irish and Italians thrown in for some flavor.  A sturdy neighborhood, with solid, plain buildings, which when I was a kid, was turning from working-class whites into welfare-dependent Hispanics, as the city writhed in the throws of bankruptcy, crime, and social disarray.

At the time, of course, all I saw as a kid was a lot of people who didn't talk like me, and who had browner skin than I did.  Brooklyn was a very dirty place, and my relatives would complain about how dangerous the neighborhood had become.  Everything seemed old, well-used, and crowded.  And Herman's Toy Store, located on the ground floor of an old merchants building, with tenements on two upper floors, was all of that:  old, well-used, and crowded.

It's been gone for about four decades now, but in a small part of my brain, I can still remember what a wonderful place it was.  Even though it was old, well-used, and crowded.

I remember its big, heavy wood door with a plate glass window, and the door handle so high, I could barely reach it as a little boy.  I remember that whomever the adult was who had come along with my brother and me - to pay for whatever we found inside, of course! - usually had to open it.  Maybe that was part of Herman's anti-theft program:  having a front door heavy enough to be an impediment for young thieves fleeing with their loot.

The worn floor inside Herman's was made of narrow strips of wood, and the high-ceilinged shop was always musty and dim.  There were glass cabinets close to the door, upon which stood one of those rotating displays of miniature Matchbox cars.  Being an avid collector of both Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars, I could content myself with that rotating Matchbox display during my entire visit, while I remember my brother would usually wander the store to check out all of his options, before settling on his selection.

Herman knew my aunt, since she made most of the purchases for us when we visited in person, and when she put together care packages to send to us.  He used to treat us to a gumball from one of those old dispensers he had near the door.  And, come to think of it, most of my memories are from that area in front of the door!  Herman's store was fairly deep, but I don't recall straying too far away from that Matchbox display.

I vividly remember one purchase that was made when we stopped by during a very brief trip to Brooklyn from our home in upstate New York.  A close family friend had passed away, Mrs. Johansen, and Mom and Dad wanted us all to pay our respects at her funeral.  I remember it was held at the venerable Halvorsen's Funeral Home, further down on Eighth Avenue, and that one of Mrs. Johansen's grown sons sobbed uncontrollably through most of the service.  Probably in an effort to cheer up my brother and me, before we headed back home, my parents let us visit Herman's, where I picked out a little lime green Lincoln Continental sedan from the rotating Matchbox display.  I remember playing with that thing in our VW bus while dad fought rush hour traffic on the Palisades Parkway as the sun set, trying to get us back up to central New York at a reasonable hour.

It's weird the things I remember, huh?

Unfortunately for Herman, and for me, his store was ravaged by fire one summer.  I remember the telephone conversation I had with my aunt, who told me that the Salvation Army building a couple of doors down from Herman's had caught fire, and that Herman's store had been caught in the conflagration.  They were all old, wood and brick buildings, slapped up right alongside each other, with common walls, none of which were built to contain fires.  Fortunately, Herman's store didn't burn to the ground - none of the buildings did - but it did suffer extensive smoke and water damage.

The last time we visited Herman's was very sad indeed.  The narrow wood slats of his floor were warped and uneven, the walls were pitch black, and so was the ceiling.  While it had always been dim, this time, I remember feeling like I'd stepped into a pit of ash.  Thinking back now, I wonder if Herman even had any permits to re-open his store; these days, I doubt a fire marshal would let somebody go back in and set up shop in such a damaged space.  But that was a different time, and a different place; New York shopkeepers are a different breed, especially in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood like Sunset Park had become.

I remember that my beloved revolving Matchbox display was still there, but it was sooty and mostly empty.  A horrible selection.  The shelves throughout the rest of his store had been hastily stocked with new merchandise, but everything was haphazard.  It was all very unlike the Herman's we knew, where merchandise had been carefully organized.  I remember Dad had gone in with my brother and me.  He shared his condolences with Herman, only this time, I remember Herman was unfriendly.  He was probably stressed from the fire, and from trying to salvage his business.  He'd probably hoped to sell it and retire; I was just a kid back then, and a lot of people seemed old to me, but he was probably close to retirement.  But what could he sell now?  The shell of a fire-damaged building on a block that had become crime-ridden?  Would customers keep coming into a store that reeked of smoke?  If he closed for the extensive repairs that were needed, would they come back when he re-opened?

These days, that old storefront has a Chinese business in it, and any vestiges of that fire have almost certainly been remodeled, rebuilt, and removed from that commercial strip along Eighth Avenue.  It's a bustling place again, only this time with recent arrivals from China.  Indeed, Sunset Park is on the rebound these days, thanks to its decent subway access to Manhattan, and housing prices that, by New York City standards, are still relatively affordable.  After white flight decimated the neighborhood, and also served as one of the nails sealing the coffin for Herman's Toy Store, virtually all of that block stood empty for years.  Even if there hadn't been a fire, Herman may not have gotten anything for his store anyway.  Times had gotten that perilous for the neighborhood. 

If my aunt ever told us about whatever happened to Herman, I don't remember what it was.  After college, when I lived with her for a while before getting my own apartment in Manhattan, I recall walking by Herman's then-vacant storefront on Eighth Avenue, and asking her.  She seemed to think that the fire had pretty much ruined him, and that he did close it to embark on a far less financially-robust retirement than what he'd planned on, before the fire.

I have no need to shop for toys any more.  My nephews and niece are no longer children, so  now I purchase them gift cards for Christmas.  But I see what toy stores look like these days, and something tells me that worn wood floors, dim lighting, and heavy front doors aren't appealing to today's toy shoppers.  The chances of you making your purchase from the owner of Toys-R-Us or Walmart seem pretty slim, too.  Having him or her know you're visiting relatives from out of town, and that you like Matchbox cars, and that you're not going to steal anything... apparently, none of that is important today.

Maybe Herman's was good enough of a store for Sunset Park, but I doubt it could have survived along Manhattan's tony Fifth Avenue.  Herman's certainly was no FAO Schwarz.  Or anything approximating the gargantuan toy department at Macy's flagship store in Herald Square.

However, I remember my aunt once taking us to Macy's in Manhattan, and me complaining that Herman's selection back in Sunset Park suited me just fine.


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