In December, we previewed our new series, “On Essex,” a monthly exploration of one of the Lower East Side’s most fascinating blocks. Throughout 2010, we’ll be bringing you multimedia stories reflecting the old and the new – audio interviews with the people who work and live on Essex between Grand and Canal, paired with the striking black and white photographs of A. Jesse Jiryu Davis. Today, we begin with Len Zerling of G&S Sporting Goods, ensconced at 43 Essex since 1937.
Len’s dad, Izzy Zerling, was a professional boxer and later a trainer and promoter. Having come to this country alone in 1922, he lived with relatives, worked in the streets as a shoe shiner and overcame a heart murmur to find success in the ring.
Izzy “1-5” Zerling won 14 fights – 3 of them knockouts. After hanging up the gloves, Izzy and his wife, Betty, opened G&S, which specialized in boxing gear but also sold a lot of other sports merchandise, and even toys at one point. She sewed the gloves, shorts and robes “from morning to night” – everything was made right there in the store. They lived above the shop for 20 years. Among their customers: Hagler, Frazier, Ali.
Izzy’s been retired for awhile – but you can still find Len behind the counter every day He’s moved aggressively online, selling “boxing equipment that is still considered among the best” nationwide. Len says G&S can no longer count on regular business from pro boxers. These days, in the era of lucrative endorsement deals, the best professional boxers get their gloves and trunks for free. But G&S has its share of loyal customers – and a few new fans.
He’s planning to hold out for a few more years, but his kids aren’t planning to take over the family business, so the long-term fate of this neighborhood institution is very much in doubt. Len has watched as the Lower East Side has changed from a place where “you came to shop for discounts” to an “upscale neighborhood with million dollar condos.”
During our visit, he recalled something his dad used to say: “They used to make boxing rings out of wood and fighters were made out of steel. Today the rings are made out of steel and the fighters are made out of wood.”