Tenement Museum’s New Shop Life Tour Connects Past and Present

The facade at 97 Orchard Street, home of the Tenement Museum’s new “Shop Life” tour. Photo by Keiko Niwa, courtesy of the Tenement Museum.

If you’re looking for a fun holiday activity to do with friends or family visiting from out of town, “Shop Life,” the Tenement Museum‘s new interactive tour is an interesting way to spend a few hours. It examines the stories of business owners who lived and worked at 97 Orchard Street from 1863 to 1988.

The tour begins in a re-creation of John and Caroline Schneider’s 19th century beer saloon and community gathering spot, the Schneider Saloon. Visitors explore the dining room, kitchen and private quarters of the Schneider family, who lived behind the saloon. A vivid recreation of what life was like in “Little Germany” is presented with news clippings, photos, furniture, food and other items from the time period.

More Peril For Orchard Street Merchants

117 Orchard Street. Photo by Mitch Weinstein.

As we reported earlier, Bonnie’s New York, a fixture on Orchard Street for nearly 30 years, selling hats and jewelry, has closed it’s doors for good.  We spoke with owner Bonnie Weinstein this morning about her reasons for closing.  She told us that she would have loved to stay in the neighborhood but her lease was up and, although her landlord offered to negotiate a more favorable deal, she didn’t feel she could keep her business going through the recession.  Bonnie also said she hates to see what’s happening to the small businesses in the area – and doesn’t see how they are going to survive without some help.

There were a number of other factors influencing her decision. The building next door – the former home of Fine & Klein Handbags – has been under construction for many months. A large dumpster blocked her entrance and scaffolding obscured her signage. Bonnie believes the neighborhood has really never recovered from 9/11 – foot traffic from tourists is down considerably. She told me merchants also suffer from the fact that most new residents don’t work in the neighborhood. And, she had a time dealing with the corporation that bought the building where she leased space three years ago.

Bonnie was part of the LES Business Improvement District (a non-voting member).  She says there doesn’t seem to be a consensus among businesses about priorities. She doesn’t understand why the entire area hasn’t been landmarked as an historic neighborhood in an effort to preserve the LES’s authenticity. Like many other business owners, Bonnie feels commercial rental rates are out of control.  “The problem is with the rents,” she said. “The landlords need incentive to keep rents stable for the small business owner.”  She thinks there needs to strong tax incentives, noting, “Small business loans don’t help because they aren’t being paid back and the buildings have been sold to corporations, so now they (the landlords) are highly leveraged and need to make their own rent.”

Bonnie says she will miss having face to face contact with her customers.  “Customers love a personal touch. Saks and Bloomingdale’s clerks don’t learn your name, don’t know anything about you and don’t care if you shop there or not.  Owner-operated stores care.”   She is hoping to continue her business online at: www.bonniesny.com but says she is “still figuring out how to do that.”