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Today I had to be up in the garment district to pick up some odds and ends. Few things are more difficult to find in New York than sewing notions. (Ok, maybe I exaggerate. There are a handful of items more difficult to find: friendly grocery cashiers and convenient public bathrooms come to mind. But back to my point.) In the rest of the country, when you go to the fabric store you can buy fabric, sewing patterns and notions all in the same place. Not here. Here fabric stores carry fabric. Rarely patterns, no zippers, no thread.
Way back in the old days, when we first moved here, Woolworth's was still in business. They didn't have a fantastic selection, but you could find thread, zippers, buttons, and a few additional sewing accountrements there. When they closed I was lost. It took a little research to find my way to Steinlauf and Stoller.
Steinlauf and Stoller is one of very few notions suppliers in the Manhattan area. They provide much of the garment industry, especially design houses with sample rooms (a rare luxury in this day of overseas development and production), with notions and supplies. Walking into S&S feels a lot like moving back in time. This is not glamorous shopping; the walls are lined with dusty metal shelves which are filled with small cardboard boxes holding the necessities. Zippers are kept in boxes sorted by color and size; rummage around in a box labeled "Eight inch invisible zippers: Blue" until you find a navy zipper similar to the color you are trying to match. Rolls of pattern paper can be found poking out of a cubbyhole toward the back of the shop. If you wait your turn, one of the men (and occasionally a woman) behind the counter will assist you with bra hooks, boning (used for fitted garments, especially strapless gowns), snaps, shoulder pads (yes, indeedy!) and other bits. And at the very front of the store you'll find a woman working an industrial machine that sets grommets and snaps on clothing, especially on denim and leather.
If you stay and watch for a while, you'll see employees from some of the fashion houses drop by for sample room supplies. Someone might bring in a jacket that needs snaps before a photo shoot or a fashion show. Another person may stop to pick up a large boxes of pins or to have their scissors sharpened. Students also purchase their supplies at S&S, and occasionally you'll find someone who sews for fun.
I sometimes wonder how much longer little shops like this can survive in New York. S&S clearly does a lot of business, but the crazy, dilapidated old cavernous trim shop on Broadway in SoHo closed a few years ago (Oh, what stories I can tell about that place! Once I requested hem tape, and the 98-year-old man behind the counter rummaged around in a box behind him, handed me a knot of multicolored bits that had been sewn together, and said "Here you are" as though he was offering me a brand new package of the stuff. Huh? In order to use it I had to separate the red from the green tape with a seam ripper. That's old-fashioned New York customer service for you.), and outrageous real estate prices combined with a trend toward more upscale retail shopping (including a little bit of attention given to retail display: whoa!) will continue to make business more and more difficult for the old stalwarts of the business. Would I miss S&S if they went out of business? Sure. There aren't many other options for sewing notions in this city, and the character of the place adds interest to my shopping experience. I like shopping locally and supporting small businesses. I'd just as soon not shop at a big chain like Joanne Fabric for my notions. On the other hand, I'd love to have something closer to our neighborhood, or something with a little more attention given to new products in the market. You won't find a rotary cutter at S&S, that's for sure.
But where else could I have my giant sewing scissors sharpened? And what would be missing from my life if I didn't receive a hand-written receipt for my purchases? As idiosyncratic as Steinlauf and Stoller may be, I'd hate to lose that connection to the old New York. Especially since I can't buy used hem tape on lower Broadway anymore.