The Bicentennial Minutes continue to run. Everyone from Jessica Tandy to Gerald Ford seems to have shot a minute. The Bicentennial Minute is a cultural soup that defines who is “popular” in 1976.The Bicentennial Minute, like memory is ingrained in our collective consciousness. Yet some thirty-five years later, of the 365 minutes only two or three are available online. The William Paley Center for Media (Museum of TV and Radio) does not have a single Minute in their collection. The Bicentennial Minutes all but lost. Hopefully stored safely in some warehouse waiting to be released like a genie from a bottle. Memory operates the same way. It is remanded to our darkest recesses. It’s forgotten, but a part of the trajectory that set our lives.
Shopping in a small town is like that too. Stores that we once knew as well as the back of our hand, stores and shop owners that were as welcoming as an old friend, places we passed as often as the maple trees that lined the streets are long gone, nearly forgotten. They are memories.
My father shops at Mink’s. Mink’s is a store for men, grown men, husbands, aka fathers. Today a father and son can dress in the same brand, exchanges tees and find something at Aeropostale or Express that they can both wear, but this is 1976 and the last thing a seventeen-year-old wants to do is dress like his father. We’d rather enlist. We do everything humanly possible to look not like or fathers. I stop in Mink’s only when I am obligated to. Mink’s on South Orange Avenue rose in prominence after the Newark Riots, which extended to East Orange, where their main store is located. We stay out of East Orange unless we can’t help it. I do not know if there is a Mr. Mink’s, or if the name is meant to convey luxury. Regardless, it’s a feminine name for a men’s store. The store logo is an ebullient script, not unlike Lord & Taylors. To compensate for the feminine name and script, the store is done in a kind of Hollywood Regency style. Very masculine, dark walnut wood and cigarette smoke stained lampshade as yellow as your lungs. . Mink’s is the kind of place where Don Draper (Mad Men) might shop. It has two floors. The main floor is filled with suits, shirts and accessories. This includes cloth handkerchiefs, which men are still using. It is easy to shop at Mink’s. Every suit comes in midnight black, navy blue and charcoal grey, and that’s it. Every shirt is white, and every tie is striped. When men come in “looking for something different” a Mink’s salesman (there are no saleswomen) understands that what he is saying is “I want the same exact thing in a slightly different shade”. Mink’s does not sell ready to wear. Clothing is altered. Every suit, every arm and every cuff. The tailor is an old man, and cast by MGM, non-descript, old world accent and has a yellow measuring tape around his neck. You will have your inseam measured publically. Mink’s is a male bastion. The pant will “break” once, and you will wear your new suit, and be delighted that no one will know notice it’s new, because this season’s grey is just an “Umph” lighter. “Umph” being a technical term to indicate just a little bit. The main floor of Mink’s is more orderly than the Dewey Decimal System. Everything is pressed and pant creases are as sharp as the edges on an envelope. Clothing is arrayed in gradiant shades from light to dark. You will not get anything that looks “mod” or subject to be found in the pages of Esquire or Gentleman’s Quarterly. You might find a “continental” cut suit in sportwear, jackets and blazers if you are lucky. At Mink’s you will get a “safe” suit, a uniform you can wear to the office on Wall Street, a baby christening, dinner at Rod’s, a church supper or Father’s Day at the grammar school. Mink’s second floor is where it’s at. Clothing is relaxed. Clothing is fashionable; it’s for the younger set, men who are trying to be “hip” like the ads for Lord West, Musk For Men and Hai Karate. It’s a floor that James Bond would shop on if he were to settle down in a center hall colonial off of Valley Street. Mink’s second floor sells stripped body shirts, safari style jackets, blazer with patch packets and contrast stitching. Casualwear. The sell pieces from the Johnny Carson Collection. You can purchase a swimsuit, a Cabaña outfit for Miami, tennis togs, polo’s, and leisurewear too. My father purchases his first pair of flares, a pair of slacks; they are white with a raised flocked blue tartan print. They are beltless with an expansion band and Western style pocket. These are slacks you wear to make an entrance. My father is turning forty-six and his mid-life crisis is about to go viral. Mink’s second floor is for men who want to dress to attract the opposite sex.
Portnoff’s was conveniently located under the train trestle. It is said that local (Newark born) author Phillip Roth used a variation of the Portnoff name for Portnoy's Complaint and in Goodbye Columbus, which has a scene shot in South Orange; Jack Klugman plays Ben Patimkin an old time garmento hoping to assimilate in a waspy community. Presumably based on Mr. Portnoff. While many if not most people who lived in South Orange and Maplewood were upper middle class and upper class they opted to live in mostly self-imposed segregated areas. While the community was primarily Caucasian there were many people of color. There were large groups of conservative and reformed Jews, and there were neighborhoods of second and third generation Italian and Irish. Everyone knew the rules. Portnoff's was the store that they went to… social climbers on their way up the hill and Jews that had arrived. A woman was once heard to say, “There was no Christmas trim in the window”. Suits were shown on dressmaker forms. The suits were made of better (meaning imported) material. Suits were made in Italy, the only place where “good” suits are made or so decried Mr. Portnoff, you carried himself like Russian aristocracy. When I was old enough to purchase a suit all by myself, a frightening prospect for my father, I went to Portnoff’s. Me, a Christian, a Catholic. Mr. Portnoff was lovely and helps edit my choices down to what a proper young man should wear. Me, “proper” not an adjective I ever heard. I fell in love! I had a limited budget, and Mr. Portnoff knocked off 15.00 from the ticketed price providing he could rely on my patronage. I wasn’t 100% certain what patronage really was but I promised it anyway. fifteen dollars in 1976 was a fortune. To further stir the pot, I did not buy a “suit”. I bought a blazer. My father was livid; I did not go to Mink’s. I shopped at Portnoff’s. I hear my father’s voice, as he struggles to contain his confusion, frustration and anger. “That’s where people from the mountain shopped”. “People from the mountain” was code for Jews. My father knew what he was dealing with and that there was no way to convince me about “us” and “them”. I did not live in that world. It was for naught. The blazer was beautiful and I wore it well into the 1980’s. It was a blue plaid tartan tweed. Mr. Portnoff gives me the low down and explains clothes to me in a way no one ever has. He tells me it has a ticket pocket, and kissing buttons (which appeals to my sense of romance) and an equestrian cut with a contrast underling in the back lapel. I think to myself. This is not a mere blazer, it is a history lesson, it is my entre into the world of fashion.
There are not many stores for men’s clothing in South Orange; Dan Manzi’s is where you go if you do not deign to enter Minks. Dan Manzi’s is a classic menswear store with a little bit of everything for everyone. I got my school clothes there. We bought my Grandfather his birthday cardigans there. In all of Dan Manzi's there is nothing sols with a logo or company nane on it. The idea of wearing someone else's advertising is a foreign concept. It was a very democratic institution. The shop was well stocked and neat as a pin. There was old fraying wool carpet that was scored to the canvas by four ways, T-stands and rolling racks. I tripped in that store a million times. My father was “old school”, of the belief that his children were the extension and reflection of him. Therefore, we were to dress in a certain manner. Shopping is about bonding. My father used Dan Manzi’s to teach us (my brother and I) the rules, a pant legs breaks here, not here, a sleeve length ends here not here, the seat needs to be pulled in, but not too much. Jackets with shoulders too broad couldn’t be altered no matter what they said. The benefits of side vents vs. center vent, vs. no vent. These rules annoyed me to no end, but ultimately served me well. I bought a pair of brown ribbed velveteen corduroy pants at Dan Manzi’s, they looked very fashionable, but “whooshed” like the devil whenever I walked and my thighs pressed against one another. As a sophomore in high school purchased a pair of butter yellow Tattersall slacks that I wore to death, they has clips on the side that you could adjust so that they fit your waist or hips, I wore them through the knees. I was bereft, but true to form in a small town stock and styles do not change too much. Entering my senior year Dan Manzi still had stock my size. It was there as if my Tattersall slacks were waiting for ne to return. My father like Dan Manzi’s, he commiserated with the salesmen. They spoke the same language. My father wanted us to have “school clothes” and what he called “Knock-abouts” i.e., Play clothes. At fourteen the notion was annoying, at seventeen, the idea was appalling. My father thought it was cute to tell us that we could shop at Young Cottage, a store for infants and toddlers. So I acquiesced and I got belted sweaters, Henley’s with white piping, madras and wallpaper print button downs, Chinos aka Khakis and all sorts of things I had little use for. How different the world order is. Dan Manzi prided themselves that they did not sell jeans. Denim was for laborers, we were patricians.
Of equal merit and fashion opportunity was Maguire’s in Maplewood Village or David Burr on Springfield Avenue in Irvington. These stores rounded out a fashion education. Shopping was an activity like Little League between father and son. It will come as no surprise that I was not on the Little League. I was vexing to most salesman who would patronize me and call me sir, “what is sir looking for” to which I’d reply. I’m looking for the kind of pants that Clifton Davis wears, but I’d settle for David Cassidy, you know low on the hips. And I’m looking for the kind of shirt that Michael Ontekean, you know on “The Rookies” wears. David Soul has one too on “Starsky & Hutch”, but he only wear he’s sometimes… it’ a zippered knit with an O-ring pull ?I received most of my fashion education from TV, It was David Janssen’s plackard jackets on Harry-O, Chad Everett’s wardrobe on Medical Center, Chad, who as a neurosurgeon wore custom made shirts (no pockets) and leather trench coats. I admired Bill Bixby, and Alejandro Rey mod looks on The Magician and The Flying Nun, but clothes like that were not sold in South Orange.
Bellin’s Boystown was a small store on Springfield Avenue in Maplewood. It was the place you got your school uniform or filled the list for what to bring to summer camp. Even then it looked antediluvian. It was something out of the 1920’s and hadn’t been altered since Wilson was in office. It was tabled with high stacks of pyramids of boxes and shelves with neatly folded stock behind glass counters. It looked like a set for a Chaplin movie, ready for Charlie to destroy with his cane as he skated around to purchase a penny handkerchief. I don’t know all the salient details, but at some point Mr. Bellin retired and his head salesperson, Jerry Nardone took over the business. It stayed Bellin’s for a while then it became Jerry’s. Jerry’s moved to South Orange Avenue on the corner where Ramosser's Bakery gave way to Decorating on a Velvet Shoestring. Jerry’s was a large space, with risers and a dropped soffeted ceiling in an atomic kidney shape (left over from Ramossers) It was merchandised electrically with store fixtures and furniture finds from “Junk Week”. Jerry’s was a not just a place you shopped at, it was the town hall, the place to get good gossip, where you could be entertained and become part of a surrogate family. Jerry’s was a small town store. It could never exist anywhere else. Jerry Nardone was a good friend. Jerry and his wife Pat ran the Baird Community Theatre for years and years. They produced hundreds of plays, from the sublime to the ridiculous. One month it was The Crucible; one month it was The Boyfriend. It was French farce, Tennessee Williams or a holocaust drama like, Jacob Comes Home. The Baird Theatre enriched our lives. I was in many of those plays. I directed some of them. The Baird was a not-for-profit venture. It was done for love. Through its doors came talented people who wanted an opportunity to get their feet wet in the theatre. Theatre is a time consuming venture and all coalesced at Jerry’s. Retail is about community, it is about socializing. It is easy to get lost in a small town. To be dismissed. We sometimes fail to see what’s important. Jerry Nardone always had a smile; Jerry’s was a place to be found. I don’t think he was successful if you measure success solely in numbers and money. If you measure it in how many people adore you than he is a very wealthy man. I hope that someday Mr. Nardone receives his due for all he has done to bring art and culture to a small town.
For shoes, we went to Gem Bootery who had styles that rivaled any retailer at The Livingston Mall. The entrance was in an arcade style, windows to the left and right, an open vestibule. The store was walls and walls poorly constructed wood cubes, each cube containing the left foot shoe. Like everyone, I knew my size, but was still measured. Usually with several other pairs of shoes nearby to promote multiple sales. It was not an attractive store, but they did sell a lot of shoes. Actually, it was two stores, which were abutted, one side was for women and children and the other was for men. There were stylish shoes, clogs, Wallabies, Hush Puppies, Buster Brown. Dingo boots, (worn by Joe Namath and OJ Simpson) mottled and two tone wedgies or clunky heels, and Cuban and Chelsea boots. If you veered towards something more traditional, there were wing tips, Oxfords, penny loafers with, and without tassels (naturally I was a tassel), and my favorite side buckled with a snub nose. When Gem Bootery went out of business, “We Got Movies” moved in. The cubed wall was the perfect size for videos. Do you remember when people rented VHS and Beta video tapes? I worked at the video rental store, which was owned and operated by a lovely family, the Iverson’s. They were very good to me and I think about them often. Gem Bootery was the only game in town when it comes to footwear in South Orange, but I do have vague memories of Community Shoes in Maplewood. It was a larger, a more sophisticated store with “name brands” Johnson & Murphy, Frye, Bostonian and Florsheim. Community Shoes looked much more successful, indeed it may have been.
I believe all these stores are gone. I only know what I know. I know when I was on the precipice of adulthood I was trying to figure out who I was, who I wanted to be. These stores informed my adolescence. They were part of a community, a community of men. A place of bonding and aspirational purchases. Places that without ever having to say it, said that there was a place for us in the world.