Volume 18 • Issue 42 | March 3 - 9, 2006

Picture of William Barthman Jewelers from 1938, left. At right, Henry C. Barthman, son of William Barthman, founder of the store which opened at Broadway and Maiden Lane in 1884. The son worked at the store from age 16 until his death at age 73.

A Maiden move for Downtown’s longtime jeweler

By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke

“I am worried about the ghost of William Barthman, I don’t know what he’ll do about the move,” said Renee Rosales-Kopel, the manager of William Barthman’s corporate gift gallery and wife of general manager Joel Kopel. “I don’t know which Barthman the ghost is, maybe it’s the first William Barthman,” Rosales-Kopel said, pointing to the framed portraits hanging above the showroom.

William Barthman Jewelers, the Financial District jewelry store with the famous clock in its sidewalk, has witnessed all of the major events of the past century from the same location on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane. This May, as the 122-year anniversary draws near, the store will leave its historic post for the last time. The move may be a long emotional journey but it will be a short trip physically. Barthman will go to a larger space less than half a block away at 176 Broadway.

Manager Joel Kopel said that they are planning on plunking the existing store, including the mahogany display cases that were antiques when William Barthman bought them back in 1884, into the new store. The famous sidewalk clock will be relocated to the sidewalk in front of the new storefront, said owner Jerry Natlin.

The store has seen all of the key events of the past century and nearly a quarter, from the Spanish Civil War to the wars in Iraq. Barthman survived the Great Depression, but just barely, said Rosales-Kopel.

“They made it by the skin of their teeth,” she said, explaining that William Barthman combated “days when they only sold a watchstrap” by drawing on savings he had and revenue generated by his other businesses.

Likewise, the store struggled financially after 9/11. After Kopel and the staff felt the floor shake, they put important pieces in the safe and evacuated the building. They were closed for over two months as they tackled the massive job of cleaning the dust and debris and returning to a changed Downtown. Many of their customers worked at the Twin Towers.

“What is amazing to me is that after surviving so much in this location, we are moving,” said Rosales-Kopel. “They think it is exciting, but for me it is very difficult. Hopefully, it means that William Barthman will exist for another 100 years.”

“It had to happen sooner or later,” said Natlin, explaining that he is not very nostalgic and that the new space will be three times the size of the current one. In late 2000, Natlin opened a larger Brooklyn location at 1118 Kings Highway in Brooklyn.

Kopel began managing the store in 1983, the year that Michael and Bob Shillaber, the last of William Barthman’s descendents to own and run the store, sold the business to Natlin. Mike continued to come in until he retired six years later, but Bob, the more serious of the two, died shortly after.

Albert Speranza, a watchmaker who has been working at Barthman’s for the last 50 years, said that the business has changed in subtle ways.

“We used to have to wear a suit and tie everyday, now it is more casual,” said Speranza, wearing a tie, shirt and dress slacks. Speranza and Mike Shillaber were both born in 1934 and began working at Barthman’s in 1956. Speranza recalls the Shillaber brothers were “a lot of fun,” adding he thought they were “more concerned with having a good time than doing business,” which he attributed to inheriting an already successful shop.

The most significant change that Speranza noticed is that when he began at Barthman’s, 50 years was not an unusual tenure for employees at the store.

“Once you started working here, you never left,” said Speranza, who contrasted that with the current high rate of turnover.

Also, Speranza said, when he began working at Barthman’s all but two bookkeepers were men. Now, women outnumber men on the staff of 24.

Speranza also recalled the special benefit extended to good customers and friends of the Barthmans, who were allowed to watch Canyon of Hero parades from the store windows, where the display would be replaced by chairs. Speranza remembers a parade that he watched from the windows to celebrate the return of Generals Eisenhower and McArthur, as well as a parade up Broadway to celebrate the 1969 moon landing. Other parades that drew invitations to the windows of Barthman’s included victory celebrations for the Yankees and Mets.

Although customers are no longer invited to pull up a chair, the store remains an active supporter of New York events and is a sponsor of the Yankees.

When the Shillabers sold the business to Natlin, Mike Shillaber said: “We wanted someone who would keep the name. Just continue the tradition. Quality. We always gave good quality, good service.” Keeping the name — and the traditions that come with that name — alive is very important to the Kopels.

Rosales-Kopel worked part time at the store and eventually opened the upstairs corporate gift gallery, of which she is still the manager. The Kopels are passionate about the store’s history. Jackie, the Kopels’ 17 year-old daughter, is chronicling the move for her high school senior project and said she practically grew up in the store. Her mother opened the gallery the same year that Jackie was born. The Kopels are all very nostalgic about moving, and although they are looking forward to the increased space, they are sad to leave.

William Barthman Jewelers is a reminder of historic Lower Manhattan, a time when Maiden Lane meant gold watches and vendors hocking gems outside of stores displaying jewelry in their windows.

The area, where Tiffany’s got its start was once the hub of the jewelry district. The name “Maiden Lane,” although sometimes thought to derive from the women who bought their jewelry on the winding street, actually comes from the Dutch word for the “maidens,” who could once be seen washing their clothes in a small stream that used to pass through the lane. Historical records show that Maiden Lane developed into the center of the jewelry district because the ships importing gold and jewels could conveniently dock in the East River, allowing merchants to transport the goods to Maiden Lane.

It was in 1884 that William Barthman, an apprentice jeweler from Hamburg, opened his own store at 174 Broadway, on the corner of Maiden Lane, after operating a smaller jewelry business out of a neighboring storefront for the prior ten years. The store, which until 1983 was still owned by descendents of the Barthman family, retains a family feel and has long enjoyed its’ claim as the oldest jewelry store in one location.

Although the Barthman building does not enjoy landmark status, the managers say the building housed one of the first elevators in New York, which to this day remains manually operated.

Scrapbooks compiled around 1972 chronicle the long history of the store, and, by extension, that of Lower Manhattan.

Photographs of the jewelry district show horse and carriages parading down Broadway, which soon gave way to trolleys, then early automobiles and buses. A photograph of construction outside the store on Broadway shows workers in suits and top hats.

Articles express the Downtown community’s worry that skyscrapers will change the neighborhood, first over the 1913 construction of the Woolworth Building, then later over the construction of the World Trade Center in 1973.

The store displays its history everywhere; even the business card is a replica of a business card from 1909, although the store has abandoned the original method of engraving in favor of more cost effective, modern computer printing. A glance through the scrapbooks revealed that William Barthman was a member of a group of Downtown business owners, a pre-cursor to the Downtown Alliance, which resonated with Kopel since he is on the Alliance’s board. The clips also showed evidence of the store’s support for the Downtown community through the years. “That’s why the ghost is still here,” said Rosales-Kopel. “Everything they did, we do.”


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