The 100-Year Vision of Moscot Eyewear
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 Daily News 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 touched his stylish black frames he designed himself (the “Double M”) and declared with the enthusiasm he had back in our 1980s English classes, in one breath: “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. 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 heimish cool. Four generations… Harvey runs it now. His brother Kenny was a good friend. He passed on. A melanoma that metastasized. He was cool and kind. I miss him.”
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 opportunity. 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 well-toned, 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 is now Babeland, a women-owned sex toy store home of vibrators and pleasure eggs, dildos, strap-ons and lubricants. Would this news upset his grandfather? Harvey laughed big: “I knew that already! Please! My grandfather — how do I say this — Grandpa Sol was a guy’s guy. I think he would be thrilled with what it evolved into. He was a regular guy, and he certainly appreciated all shapes and forms. Now my great grandfather Hyman was very religious man. He went to shul every day. I don’t think you’d get the same happy reaction from him.”
Hyman encouraged Sol to be religious as well — but Sol was a “little bit” rebellious and soon shucked his religion, though continued to observe rituals like the High Holidays and shivas. After graduating from my father’s alma mater, Seward Park High School, Sol came right into work. “At a point in time when I guess he was questioning his identity, he joined the army and went to a base in Plattsburgh for a year. He never served in war, but returned to the store to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life,” Harvey said.
In 1936 the Moscots moved to 118 Orchard St. on the corner of Delancey, where they established a now defunct store most New Yorkers associate with the establishment. Gingerly, the Moscots made it through the 1930s. A few Lower East Side wineries like Schapiro’s survived the Prohibition and Great Depression by bootlegging. Eyewear was less of a mobster operation. The Moscots simply bunkered down in the hold, sticking to what they knew best. “People always needed eyewear. We were fair, we never took advantage, and connected to our customers.”
Joel began presiding over the House of Moscot in 1951.
“My father still remembers Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead coming in the Orchard Street store in the early 1970s, partly because I made such a big deal about it at the dinner table,” Harvey recalled. “When I was growing up I was in a band, and I thought he was kind of fabulous.” He channels his retired father’s voice: “He was a dirty guy with food in his beard.” We both laughed.
Did that really happen, or is it just family lore?
“As a matter of fact, I found his record card because I was always in the Orchard Street store; I even brought it home, and would show my friends my dad’s handwriting, Jerry Garcia’s prescription, and the frames which he ordered.”
Does he still have it?
Harvey shook his head miserably. “It was taken from my room by a friend, and I was never able to find it again. It was so dear to my heart.”
“In the 1970s, we got broken into more than once,” Harvey said. “One day, thugs came in and bounded off with frames. Me and my coworker Ritchie jumped over the counter. Later we joked it was our ‘Starsky and Hutch’ episode because we raced after them on the street screaming, ‘Drop the Frames!’ I used to be young and nuts, what can I say? We got some of those frames back but it was a very different time. It used to be unsettling having an open door in a tough neighborhood; it was never easy. There was shall we say, an element of apprehension. Back in the day, things could happen any moment.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Moscots kept their store but moved their kids to Forest Hills, New York (“where there is no forest, and no hills,” Harvey said) and then to Great Neck, Long Island.
“Everyone has to understand that the Lower East Side wasn’t a chi-chi neighborhood,” said Harvey. “Before it gentrified, it was kind of down and dirty. And it had an edge to it. Many parts of New York City were like that. This is where the artists lived. So we always attracted artists and creative types. The neighborhood did. That was our demographic.”
Were his ancestors eye doctors too? “No, none of them. When I was applying to colleges, my father said, ‘I know you love your guitar and I know you love playing in your bands but — you know what? You’re a great student with great grades, why don’t you become the big optometrist?’” Previous male heirs — Hyman and Sol stood firmly against women entering the company — had viewed medical school for the male successors like the daunting swingbridge that must be crossed in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
Harvey knuckled down as a premed student in college, and easily made it to optometry school for four more years at the New England College of Optometry in Boston. He graduated in the top five of his class in 1986. The family business finally had its doctor. He reported to work at 86 Orchard St.
House of Moscot started making frames in the 1980s and early ’90s, and a subsequent wholesale collection started around the turn of the millennium. Kenny Moscot entered the business in 1991 with an optician’s degree and a bachelor’s in finance. In 1996, with father Joel still at the company, Moscot expanded, with a new flagship at 60 W. 14th St., on the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue. (Please, never Avenue of the Americas to New Yorkers.) “We just had a lot of Moscots in one space, my father, Kenny, and myself, we loved each other but we had to spread out if you get my drift.”
“After my dad retired in 2003, we rebranded,” said Harvey. “The name Sol Moscot was long —”
“Not because the name was too Jewish?” I ask.
He stops to think if that was true. “No, we were called Moscot and Co. before we were Sol Moscot, but even when older locals still call us Sol Moscot that’s fine. Funny enough in Spanish, Sol is sun, and there was a large Spanish population here in the Lower East Side in the ’60s — and sometimes people walked in thinking we could be a Spanish operation. That’s why one of our collections is called Moscot Sun, sort of an inside joke for the family. But Moscot rolls off the tongue better, don’t you think?”
One day in 2007 at the Orchard Street store, Harvey picked up a guitar. It was such a kick that an idea fixed in his head. Soon, a music space called Moscot Music was launched. On the day I interviewed Harvey, the very popular Dum Dum Girls were playing the next night. Harvey never misses a show. He may be an optometrist, but he is a rocker at heart.
“Again, we never really tried to be cool. We were appreciated for expertise, we were the go-to place for making the correct glasses, we never took advantage of people and we rarely advertised. My Grandpa Sol, a master schmoozer, said if you treat them fair they will come back — and that is what Kenny and I saw growing up. He’d fix people’s glasses for no charge because he would say, ‘It doesn’t matter if you make money now if you treat them right, they will come back and buy glasses.’”
In 2010, the brothers were at their apogee. Then Kenny told his brother he felt pain. Shortly after discovering a melanoma, he learned his skin cancer has metastasized. “My father had a melanoma and I had one, and we caught them in time, but it was too late for Kenny,” Harvey said.
Kenny died at the age of 40 on November 5, 2010, leaving behind a young son, then 9. He was buried in a traditional Jewish service in the Glendale neighborhood of Queens, at Mount Carmel Cemetery. “I was flattened, but felt the responsibility of carrying out their dreams and vision – and keeping the legacy going,” said Harvey. “I think he would be very happy how the brand evolved and his presence is felt every day.”
In 2012, the building on 118 Orchard St. that House of Moscot had rented for 77 years was bought by Helm Equities, and combined into a larger lot for $4.8 million. There was a (yet-to-be-built) 12-story condo building coming, and for the Moscots it was a crushing disappointment. They were renters, and faced eviction after nearly eight decades at the site.
C’mon! They were here for 100 years. No one ever stopped to buy a building? How was this possible?
“We’ve never owned any real estate,” said Harvey. “We had an opportunity to buy into the new Orchard Street condos, but we always feel like stick to what you know best — we know the optical business. Some things you buy as soon as they go bust. But everyone needs glasses.” (I didn’t consider this to be wise financial planning, but I didn’t rub in the fact that the Streit’s family, friends of mine, had just sold their nearby Rivington Street matzo factory for millions more than the matzo being made there would ever make them.)
When the business seemed to be in danger, they spoke with the controversial real estate agent Baruch Singer, who owned the building across the street at the southeast corner of Orchard, where the Lower East Side Tenement Museum was once housed. My eyebrows rose when Moscot mentioned Singer, because every New Yorker who follows the papers knows Singer has a reputation for being something other than a saint. Harvey, reading my mind, put up a hand. “I know he has controversy for others, but I have to say a good word for Baruch. He understood how important it was to keep Moscot on Orchard. I told him we were born on Orchard Street, and that when I die, no matter how many stores we own, I still want a business to be on Orchard Street. It’s emotionally important.” Singer let them into 108 Orchard, with a nice fat 20-year lease.
In 2013, Moscot opened their first store outside of Manhattan, in Cobble Hill, along Court Street in Brooklyn. The facade of the store in Cobble Hill is reminiscent of the 1925 store at 94 Rivington St. This was followed by a store in South Korea.
Harvey waved to his son Zack, who was waiting for his father to be photographed with the limited edition Smart Fortwo automobile parked in front of the store. A University of Michigan graduate, Zach, or as Harvey calls his son, “G5,” majored in product design and joined the business in 2015. Zack, now 24, rangy, lean, in the flush of youth, looks every bit as sexy as any of the youthful models on runways in Moscot frames. Moscot’s new chief designer has a glittering future ahead.
We got up for a much needed stretch, and looked at some photos on the wall including a picture of the September 21, 1946 New Yorker cover with a colorful illustration of the Orchard Street Moscot offices, and one of his grandmother in a fur coat and memorable sunglasses. “That’s my favorite,” I said.
“Mine too,” said Harvey. “She used to think she was Ginger Rogers — we make a frame called the Ginger to honor her.”
Moscot co-president Wendy Simmons took some pictures of Harvey and then Zack in the car parked on top of the curb in front of the Moscot store. A young female cop appeared. She seemed pissy because a car, even if it was tiny, was parked on the curb. “Can we just have a few minutes? It’s for a quick photo,” Harvey said. He pointed to the Moscot sign behind the car. The cop said no, and so he asked again. And again. Harvey’s persistence did not go down well, and the cop, with a half smile on her face, wrote him a ticket.
When the officer was almost done writing her ticket, an elderly Orthodox man appeared, as if emerging from Central Casting. He spoke in a Yiddish accent. “Vy are you giving the Moscots a ticket?” he asked. “They have been here a hundred years!”
Laurie Gwen Shapiro, novelist and documentary filmmaker, is currently working on her first nonfiction book, about a Lower East Side kid who was a stowaway on Commander Byrd’s 1928 Antarctica expedition (Simon & Schuster, 2016).