Kenny Moscot remembers spending summers on the Lower East Side when he was a kid, hanging out in the family store and picking up a few life lessons along the way. These days he’s doing a bit more than “hanging out.” Along with his older brother Harvey, Kenny has successfully transformed eyewear institution Sol Moscot from a “mom and pop” store into an internationally revered brand.
Recently, I spoke with Kenny about the changes the family business has undergone in the past century (particularly in the last few years) and about Moscot’s deep neighborhood roots.
There’s always a lot of talk about the death of old-style retail businesses on the LES. Notably, Moscot has not only endured in this community, they have embraced the company’s humble beginnings on the Lower East Side as a way of distinguishing their products worldwide.
Sol Moscot has a way of attracting media exposure money can’t buy. A couple of weeks ago, there was actor James Franco (star of the biopic “Howl”) in the arts section of the New York Times, pictured wearing Allen Ginsberg’s trademark Moscot frames. Many other celebrities, including Jessica Alba, Justin Timberlake and Johnny Depp are well-known Moscot devotees.
Last year, the New York Post called Moscot a driving force in the “nerd-chic explosion” that has made vintage frames hot commodities. Several years ago, the company decided to launch their own line of glasses based on frames from the 1940’s, in Moscot’s own archives. Kenny acknowledges they were well positioned to ride the wave. But he said Moscot has succeeded because there’s nothing trendy or contrived about these creations, and their business philosophy has been very consistent. That philosophy starts with an appreciation of the company’s heritage but also takes into account that the eyewear industry has changed and Moscot must change with it.
Hyman Moscot started selling glasses from a pushcart on Orchard Street, shortly after arriving in this country near the turn of the century. The first store was opened at 94 Rivington Street by his son, Sol, in 1925 (at the young age of 15). In 1950, he moved to 118 Orchard (at Delancey), where the business remains today.
After Kenny joined the company in 1992, the family opened a second location on 14th Street. That’s where the main offices are, but he said the Orchard Street original continues be an important anchor because the Lower East Side is “part of the company’s DNA.” Kenny told me he has fond memories in the neighborhood. He recalled many of the shops from his childhood that are long gone and reflected on what it takes survive in a neighborhood that’s gentrifying and changing in other ways.
Kenny is a big believer in the notion that shops that stay true to their values while evolving can have staying power in neighborhoods like this one. He pointed to the example of Russ & Daughters, a business that has moved aggressively online while, at the same time, continuing to emphasize excellent customer service. These two family-run companies have some things in common. Treating customers well is clearly one of them.
While being mindful of tradition, there are a few new twists at the Orchard Street store. This past summer, they sponsored a Saturday music series in the ground floor gallery. It was, in part, a celebration of the creative spirit on the Lower East Side. That creativity, Kenny said, is important to the company as a whole. It’s not just celebrities who have taken a liking to Moscot’s frames, but artists as well. As he put it, “we are a niche lifestyle brand that speaks to a downtown sensibility, a creative mindset.”
It’s a little hard to imagine Hyman Moscot putting it quite that way in 1915, but there’s not much doubt he’d be pleased by what has became of that Orchard Street pushcart.