Editor’s note: Today we’re kicking off a series of small business profiles. The series is part of our yearlong reporting project on Small Business Survival. This story is reported and written by Tobi Elkin. If you’re interested in writing profiles for this project, send us an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alice Goldberg Wildes is a cyclone of energy. The great-granddaughter of Mendel Goldberg, founder of Mendel Goldberg Fabrics, is doing what she does best—providing highly personal service and applying her discerning, curator’s eye to clients. On this day, she’s on the phone for nearly an hour with a woman from Israel who’s planning a wedding. She’s clarifying the order to ensure the shade of the fabric is just right: “No, if you’re looking for navy, this ain’t it. It looks like black but it’s definitely blue. … Well, it’s ink. Once it’s cut, it’s yours,” she tells the client.
Wildes debates the fabric’s hue with the customer repeatedly. Louis Ortega, her assistant, hovers nearby before departing to make a delivery.
As one of the oldest surviving businesses on the Lower East Side, 2015 marked Mendel Goldberg’s 125th year. It’s an auspicious moment for a business that started from a pushcart when the LES was awash with immigrants. Also, since most everything about the neighborhood has changed—radically—especially in the last decade. Tucked away on Hester Street, the shop has practically the only vintage building façade on its block. Destroyed by fire in April 2012, it was rehabilitated and its signature old-world charm remains. An original fabric cutter sits in the basement; a century-old ruler lies on a table in the store.
Wildes’ great-grandfather arrived in New York in 1890 from Poland. He began selling tailoring supplies from a pushcart and eventually opened the store. “He bought the ends of spools of thread from tailors and sold them,” Wildes noted. When Mendel Goldberg’s son, Alexander, took over, he sold linings for the fur trade and starting stocking fabric. Then, Alexander’s son, Samuel, established himself as a key supplier of fabrics to department stores across the United States. Samuel, Wiides’ 86-year-old father, began working in the store at age 14 and still comes in on Thursdays.
Wildes, an Upper East Sider, put her own stamp on the business by focusing on imported European designer fabrics from the likes of Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Roberto Cavelli, Versace and Ungaro, among others. Brocade, cashmere, gabardine, silk, tulle and wool are just a few of the textiles you’ll find. “I don’t think you can buy what I have anywhere else in the city,” Wildes said. She makes buying trips to France, Italy and Switzerland three times a year to take the pulse of trends and secure the store’s unique stock.
Bolts of sumptuous fabrics in every conceivable color, texture and design are stacked on floor to ceiling shelves. Apart from an extremely diverse product assortment, the store is distinctive for its high level of customer service and reputation as “the” place to come for designer, imported fabrics.
The shop’s international clientele includes socialites, costume designers for Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera, TV and film stylists and a 93-year-old woman who lives on Grand Street. She bought fabric for making four new outfits. “She sent a seamtress to the store,” Wildes said, adding that the woman attended her granddaughter’s wedding this year.
The store ships free samples to clients all over the world. “They know we’re the best through word-of-mouth,” Wildes said, plus, “generations of families have shopped here.” In recent years, online sales have also part of the business.
Wildes’ buying trips and innate sense of style help her remain on top of her stock so it’s new and fresh, but she’s also careful to include classic textiles, too. She sees increasing interest in home sewing from her travels to trade shows across the U.S.
There are, of course, challenges in running a family business. “You have to work very hard and you have to be very dedicated. You’re a one-man show, you’re on 24/7,” Wildes said. Although she’s not entirely alone: Louis Ortega has worked in the shop since 1988 and handles clients with the same care as Wildes. As for competitors: “We don’t have any. We’re a very high-end boutique. Where other places might have a lot of square footage, they have a lot of different quality fabrics,” she said.
The business faced a major test when fire damaged the store in April 2012. Wildes lost her entire basement stock in the fire and substantial rebuilding was needed, including a new roof. A major advantage: Wildes owns the building and there’s rental income from upstairs tenants.
Of the next generation, Wildes’ says her daughter will eventually take over the business. And Wides’ 7-year-old granddaughter comes to the store to help organize things. “She has an eye,” Wildes observed.
Mendel Goldberg Fabrics
72 Hester St.
No Facebook or Twitter
Hours: Sun. 10 a.m . to 4 p.m., Mon.-Thurs. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Fri. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sat. closed.
Tobi Elkin is a writer, editor and interviewer who lives on the Lower East Side and is a regular reader of The Lo-Down. Her diverse interests include arts and entertainment, film, food and cultural critique. She can be reached at email@example.com.