The Eyes Have It

Once Upon a Time, Hyman Moscot Sold His Wares From a Pushcart. To­day, His Fam­ily’s Glasses Have Be­come the Epit­ome of Cool.

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Lau­rie Gwen Shapiro haimish

Moscot eye­glasses celebrate a spec­tac­u­lar cen­tury.

There’s an old Yid­dish ex­pres­sion my Lower East Side grand­mother Ida was fond of: “When luck hap­pens, of­fer it a seat.” Luck hap­pened. My fam­ily has been loyal cus­tomers of Moscot Eyewear for nearly 100 of its 100 years; my be­spec­ta­cled el­derly fa­ther will buy from no one else, and my grand­par­ents bought there when they needed Moscot pre­scrip­tion read­ing glasses, as I do now.

I was sit­ting at OST, a trendy new cof­fee­house on my once very un­trendy street, when an old Stuyvesant High School class­mate walked in wear­ing hipster glasses. What the hell was Moss Lipow do­ing here? Moss, it turned out, had moved into an apart­ment one door down from where my grand­mother (and babysit­ter) lived, a block away from me. In my high school there had been un­con­ven­tional peo­ple by the dozens, but ec­cen­tric cre­atives still stood out. With his dra­matic glasses and the­atri­cal asides, Moss may have stood out the most. Af­ter go­ing to NYU film school, he turned to de­sign, bring­ing drama to celebrity eyewear. His cre­ations have graced the eyes of David Bowie, El­ton John and Lady Gaga, and he re­cently au­thored an art book based on his per­sonal col­lec­tion: “Eyewear: A Vis­ual History.” He asked what I was work­ing on. I told him I was think­ing of writ­ing some­thing about Moscot.

Moss truly knew what the Lower East Side was like in the 1970s, back when Abe Beame was mayor, in the days when Pres­i­dent Ford told bank­rupt New York to, as the New York Post put it so gen­tly, “drop dead.”

De­lancey Street was a chancy street to walk down when I was a kid, and hor­ri­bly smelly too, es­pe­cially dur­ing the in­fa­mous garbage strike of 1975. In the ’80s, crack lords ruled the streets. There were no four- star lux­ury ho­tels or $14 lob­ster rolls that would make the old East Side’s kosher grand­moth­ers turn over in their graves. Now, find­ing a good dairy res­tau­rant with cherry blintzes is as likely as find­ing a work­ing pay­phone. The pickle dis­trict that wrapped around Es­sex to Hester Street is just one pickle store. My grand­mother and Moss’s grand­mother — would they ever have a lot to kib­butz about if they could see the Lower East Side in 2015, and what be­came of Moscot’s lit­tle up­stairs store.

Moss Lipow touched his stylish black frames, which he de­signed him­self (the “Dou­ble M” model), and de­clared with the en­thu­si­asm he showed back in our 1980s English classes: “The Moscots were able to take the per­sona of this neigh­bor­hood, a whole era of Jewish history, and make it rel­e­vant — a sort of com­fort brand — and spin it as cool. Jews were run­ning the f--k away from the Lower East Side. The peo­ple left were the dregs, the ones with­out ini­tia­tive. You know that! Try re­brand­ing your­self as what you al­ways were, mak­ing it cool and tak­ing it global. Not easy. It’s a great op­ti­cal history tale! Moscot made cool. Four gen­er­a­tions. Har­vey runs it now. His brother Kenny was a good friend when he was pres­i­dent. He was cool and kind. I miss him. A reg­u­lar guy who liked the Knicks, liked the Mets, a real New Yorker, but in eyewear he was a vi­sion­ary. He died too young.”•

It’s not easy to get an ap­point­ment with Har­vey Moscot at his of­fice on 14th Street, the flag­ship of five stores (there are three in New York City and two in Asia). Har­vey is an op­tometrist who has taken on many of the fi­nan­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that his de­ceased younger brother Kenny Moscot, a busi­ness school grad­u­ate, once over­saw. On a blis­ter­ingly hot af­ter­noon, we sat in a heav­ily air-con­di­tioned room filled with vintage fam­ily photos and op­ti­cal tools from the old days, and pic­tures of many celebri­ties in Moscot frames, in­clud­ing Martin Scors­ese, John Wa­ters and Sa­muel L. Jack­son.

As we set­tled down to speak, Har­vey ex­plained that he would have to cut the in­ter­view short for a photo op­por-

‘It’s a great op­ti­cal history tale! Moscot made haimish cool!’

tu­nity. A car was to be driven into his store — a lim­ited edi­tion Daim­ler AG Smart Fortwo edi­tion Moscot with black and yel­low in­te­rior de­tails, the brand’s sig­na­ture col­ors. In honor of Moscot’s 100th an­niver­sary, 100 of these cars had been made.

Fifty-five-year-old Har­vey is a well­toned, hand­some man who wears a flesh-col­ored ver­sion of Moscot’s Lem­tosh frames that Johnny Depp made fa­mous in 2004 in the psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller “Se­cret Win­dow” — the frames are even on the poster. Whether it’s the glasses or the clothes, or sim­ply the at­ti­tude, Har­vey looks much younger than his years. Af­ter my first ques­tions, I was dis­ap­pointed that he seemed a lit­tle jaded. It was six months into his fam­ily’s 100th an­niver­sary, and he was speak­ing al­most robot­i­cally. “It all be­gan with gen­er­a­tion one, in 1899, when my great-grand­fa­ther Hyman Moscot came through El­lis Is­land and soon sold glasses from a wooden pushcart on Or­chard Street. The an­ces­tors were all from Minsk Pinsk, you know what I mean, the shtetl stock es­cap­ing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, seek­ing out the life in Amer­ica they heard about.”

From the re­search I had done prior to the in­ter­view, I knew that Hyman and his wife were not kids when they ar­rived. “No, they were in their 20s, and from what I re­mem­ber, Hyman had al­ready worked in eyewear in the old coun­try.” Were they Moscots? Or did he ar­rive a Moskowitz? Har­vey had to think. “I’m not sure they were Moskow­itzes. My great-grand­fa­ther’s last orig­i­nal name was much longer and was short­ened at El­lis Is­land. Hyman’s pic­ture has the name as Mush­cot, but he was al­ways re­gret­ful they didn’t use Mas­cot so he could of mar­keted the busi­ness as ‘your Op­ti­cal Mas­cot!’”

As we spoke and Har­vey started to show more en­thu­si­asm, I started men­tally check­ing off each decade. The 1910 cen­sus lists Hyman as mar­ried to Lena, who was a year younger than him. She im­mi­grated in 1902 and by 1910 had al­ready given birth to Fan­nie, Joe, Et­tie, Sam and Gussie at 139 Hous­ton St. Har­vey’s grand­fa­ther, Sol Moscot, does not ap­pear in this cen­sus call, but as a 1910 baby he must have been born af­ter the cen­sus taker came around. “Yes,” Har­vey said. “And later on, we walked past the ad­dress and he would say, ‘Sonny Boy, this is where I was born in a flat right here.’”

Har­vey pointed to a pic­ture of Moscot founder Hyman on the wall: “That cat over there on the wall had a great sense of pride. But you look at his furry coat and it is so ill-fit­ting — we al­ways joke that it prob­a­bly wasn’t his — in those days they put on these fine clothes to send back to the old coun­try to say, ‘Look, I’m okay, I’m do­ing well here in Amer­ica.’”

Hyman had at­tended yeshiva, spoke only Yid­dish, and sold his wares in a pushcart. But his son Sol, gen­er­a­tion two, was en­tre­pre­neur­ial; he could think big­ger since he was born in Amer­ica and spoke English.

I’m a “Great Gatsby” lover, and as our con­ver­sa­tion dipped into the 1920s, I asked if the Doc­tor T. J. Eck­le­burg bill­board in “The Great Gatsby,” look­ing over “the solemn dump­ing ground” of greedy New York­ers, was, as per lo­cal ru­mor, re­ally inspired by an old Moscot sign:

But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift end­lessly over it, you per­ceive, af­ter a mo­ment, the eyes of Doc­tor T. J. Eck­le­burg. The eyes of Doc­tor T. J. Eck­le­burg are blue and gi­gan­tic — their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, in­stead, from a pair of enor­mous yel­low spec­ta­cles which pass over a nonex­is­tent nose.

“I’m not a his­to­rian, but peo­ple make that ref­er­ence to Gatsby all the time; they have since as long as I re­mem­ber,” Har­vey said.

The store was launched in 1925 and Gatsby was writ­ten in the same year, so it is at least plau­si­ble that F. Scott Fitzger­ald drove by, per­haps while cross­ing the Wil­liams­burg Bridge. Was Zelda in the car with her slen­der art deco cig­a­rette holder in hand? My sus­pi­cion is that the later 1936 sign looks so un­de­ni­ably like the Gatsby ref­er­ence, with its gi­ant round glasses with big eye­balls — that some­one in the fam­ily may have tried to play up the Moscot Gats­by­ness even then, and it would ex­plain why Har­vey heard about it all his life.

In 1925, when Sol was 15, he be­came an op­ti­cian. He and his dad opened a shop at 94 Riv­ing­ton St. Ac­cord­ing to the math, Hyman would have been 51. The De­pres­sion meant some moon­light­ing for the sons to help fill the cof­fers: Dur­ing the 1930 cen­sus, Solomon is listed as a clerk in a plumber’s shop.

I told Har­vey that 94 Riv­ing­ton

COUR­TESY OF MOSCOT

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