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.
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