(Whatever Happened To) The Small-Town Specialty Shop

 21 West 52nd Street, New York City

21 West 52nd Street, New York City

Some institutions are no more than the expression of the proprietor, a vision brought to life. The vision that Jack Burns and Charlie Kriendler had for their high-class speakeasy was still the thing that you experienced, fifty years after prohibition ended. 21 was 21 because the ideal version of the place, the truth of it, existed in the minds and hearts of the people who worked there every day. It wasn’t the food, really, or the service or even the exclusive collegiality of the place, it was a combination of all that plus something else: intention.

One day, probably after his typical one-martini-and-a-beer, Vichyssoise and lamb chop lunch, in the midst of shepherding his out-of-towners back to the showroom, Norman stopped to ask Peter Kriendler, Charlie’s son and now, with the next generation of Burnses, the boss of the place, a question.

“Pete this place is a goldmine. How come you don’t open more of them? A chain of 21s. Chicago? Beverly Hills?”

Kriendler smiled and answered as if he’d been asked the question a hundred times. “Well, Norman, because I wouldn’t be there.”

“But—“  Norman started, while Kreindler’s answer sunk in.

“Because 21isn’t a restaurant. It’s an idea,” Kriendler said, his eyes canvassing the room as guests came in, went out, so as not to miss anyone. “And someone who has the idea has to be there. To make sure. Every day. No Jack, no Charlie? No 21.”

It’s the idea; but the person who has the idea, who personifies it, has to be there, too.

 Everytown had one…

Everytown had one…

Another trend in the menswear industry of the 80s and 90s was the LBO, the leveraged buyout – ultimately exemplified by the catastrophic failure and ultimate jailing of Drexel Burnham Lambert wunderkind Mike Milken – the pipe dreams of Wall Street. Machinations of the Masters of the Universe. The icon of the age was really Meshulam Riklis, whose Rapid American company bought everything in sight, from Playtex (brassieres) to Schenley (booze) and everything in between: movie theatres, cosmetics companies, you name it; basically started the conglomerate craze. Consolidated Foods bought New Haven shirt maker Gant, for example; and would-be entrepreneurs, with no fear of debt and no aversion to grandiosity, followed suit, from Portland to Palo Alto. The craze made its way from the world of corporate greenmail and billion-dollar consolidations all the way down the financial food chain to the level of the specialty menswear retailer.

It happened all the time; some swaggering big-dick money guy; shops at Joseph Schmo, Ltd. Gets his suits tailor-made from, say, Norman Hilton, Hickey-Freeman, custom shirts, as well as his sportswear; loves the pampering, the service, the ego-boost, not to mention the compliments he gets from the “girls,” from his staff. Gee, Ed! Where’d you get that suit? Loves the cajolery in the locker room at the Dandelion Valley Country Club. Oh! Watch out Ed! Don’t spill any mustard from your halfway-house hot dog on those custom-made golf slacks! Hahaha. Ed eats it up.

 Ol’ boy Joe really knows his stuff.

Ol’ boy Joe really knows his stuff.

            Now one day Ed’s over at Schmo’s (everyone calls it Schmo’s) and Joe lets it slip: he’s looking forward to retirement. Maybe poor, beleaguered Joe just came from his “office,” a combination cleaning closet, storage room and phone booth, where were piled phone messages from vendors, factors, collection agencies, whose dogged personnel had finally given up on getting any cogent answers from Dolores, Joe’s three-half-days-a-week “accounts payable department,” who would leave these very detailed and specific messages, written in her neat, schoolgirl hand, saying things like “Arthur from CIT called. They are going to turn this account over to their lawyers if they don’t receive $7,352.98 by Friday.” Dated two Wednesdays ago. That’s just one such note, in the middle of a pile of a dozen such slips, and only one of several piles, left by Dolores, who, if she wasn’t trying to make ends meet in suburban Detroit with her husband recently laid off from GM, would tell old Joe Schmo to stick his stupid ten-dollar-an-hour part-time job where the sun don’t shine; but she can’t. So instead she tortures him with these passively aggressive, nicely worded, pink “While You Were Out” slips. Thinking, as she writes, Yeah…While You’re Out… out to lunch, more like…

            Yeah. So old Joe, this one afternoon, measuring tape draped around his neck, suit jacket off, tie loosened since lunch, trying to sound cavalier, casual, says something like, “Joanie and I are thinking of packing it in. Moving down to Sarasota, near her sisters’.”

Now Ed, freshly juiced from another big day on the Big Board, says, “Well why don’t you tell me how much you want, Joe?

            “How much?”

“How much do you think it’s worth? The place?”

            “You’d like to buy my shop?” Joe says, about to pee in his pants.

            “Think it over. Let me know.”

            Whence ensues a transaction roughly described as a slam-dunk for Ed, a Great Escape for Joe. About ten minutes of due-diligence, Joe painting a glorious picture of asset values, good will, and sales projections. Ed passing it to the staff to handle while he’s at teeing off at Dandelion Valley.

Even some of the staffers, when they get a load of Schmo’s balance sheet, his debt-to-assets ratio, all the negative numbers, think this is a long shot. But Ed isn’t worried in the least, because Lester McMuffin, from Podunk First National Bank, Ed’s sister’s brother-in-law, also a client of Joseph Schmo, Ltd., although by degrees more conservative (being a banker, a Hart, Schaffner guy,) is going to finance the entire transaction. No PG for Ed, no strings attached, except to the inventory, the lease, and the nebulous “good will” of Schmo, Ltd.

Lester phones the store, to sound out the seller on the soundness of the deal. Doing the due diligence. “Sales are down the last two years, Joe,” he says.

Joe says, “Nature of the trade, Les. We’ve been through downturns like this before. Take ‘73, for instance…”

“Really?” a somewhat skeptical Lester says. And dutifully reports this to Ed, but agrees to finance the deal. “What the hell,” he says.

Considering McMuffin’s reservations, Ed is thinking, “How hard can it be? Joe’s a nice guy, but he’s no Einstein. I know how to run a menswear store. Child’s play.”

So, they concoct a totally legal, totally unethical plan to file for bankruptcy, tank the place, renounce the debt, screw the vendors — us — while promising a new, better Joseph Schmo, Ltd., overcoming the creditors’ — my — anger and better judgement with enticing promises of New Capital! Guaranteed Receivables! Big Orders! And the desperate manufacturers swallow it, hook, line, and sinker.

 The Debut of Schmo Ltd. II!

The Debut of Schmo Ltd. II!

Thus begins the oft-repeated saga of Joseph Schmo (II) Ltd. I arrive some weeks later. New buyer. Schmo gone, living in Tampa on the down payment, planning his rosy future on the monthly checks from Ed’s new “Schmo II Enterprises, Inc.”

The new buyer has decided the existing inventory is dated. Not special. Boring. He’s convinced Ed to call a liquidator to come in and take it all for pennies on the dollar. “We have to make this place special,” the new buyer says. He ought to know. He used to work for Barneys. I show him my line and he loves it. I get a huge order. Suits, jackets, pants, shirts, ties, and whatever else I show him. I get two such orders, usually, before the world of Schmo II comes to the attention of the bank’s auditors, who notice the over-leveraged state of affairs and, after a brief but scary conversation with brother  McMuffin, step heavily on the money hose. The End. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. From slow-pay to BK to sayonara in eighteen months’ time. Not a problem for our friend Ed. No PG; he wasn’t on any hook. Anyhow he was in New York a lot these days, now he was a regional manager, on his way up the Bear Sterns corporate ladder; replaced Joe Schmo with Bradley, his go-to guy at Bergdorf’s Men’s. In there two or three times a year for a Zegna suit, Brioni on a good day, or an Armani blazer. So convenient. Just down the street from his new home away from home, the St. Regis.

Whatever happened to old Joe Schmo? Someone asked. Who knows. Joanie passed away, I heard. Heard Joe was in a nursing home in Fort Myers, poor bastard.

It wasn’t just the ridiculous chutzpah of our hero Ed, that Meshulam Riklis wannabe, nor the innocent silliness of the inexperienced buyer with a playschool checkbook. It was all that, minus Joe Schmo himself, who couldn’t manage a lemonade stand financially and didn’t have the energy or skill to navigate the shallows of the biggest menswear style revolution in three generations, but who made Joseph Schmo, Ltd. the club-like, ass-kissing, personally aggrandizing place that it was. Like 21 without a Peter Kriendler would have been, Schmo’s without Joe was an empty building. Because, as the denizens of that 52nd Street business were not really there for a meal, the clients of Joseph Schmo, Ltd. did not come in for clothing. It was a massage of the ego they were after; a fine art.           

nick@nickhilton.com1 Comment