Volume 16, Number 26 | Nov. 25 - Dec. 1, 2003


Century-old jewelry store looks to the future

While many of us flock to suburban malls or uptown to shop for the holidays, we may overlook some fine shops right here in our neighborhood. With many of our local retailers continuing to struggle in the wake of 9/11, we have decided to spotlight some of them this holiday season. This article is the first of a series that will run through December.

By John Arbucci
At first blush it seems a little absurd: the managers of a jewelry store with a history as rich as Tiffany’s have people sliding fliers under apartment doors, as if they were distributing Chinese take-out menus.
But for William Barthman Jewelers, located at the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, these are not ordinary times. The store has been hit hard by the one-two punch of the attack on the World Trade Center and a nationwide recession.
“There hasn’t been talk of closing the business,” Joel Kopel, the store’s manager, said, “but we’ve been losing money since 9/11.”
Barthman’s is just one of a multitude of retail businesses in downtown Manhattan. It is difficult – if not impossible – to generalize about the financial well-being of those businesses. Some are doing as well as they ever did. Others, like Barthman’s, are not.
The store took its name from the man who founded it in 1884. Many people know the jewelry store, located on the northeast corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, as the store with the clock in the sidewalk.
Barthman’s is remarkable not only for what’s outside the store, but also for what’s inside. Elegant display cases with carved wooden legs date back to when the store first opened. It is, as the people who work there like to point out, one of the oldest jewelry stores in the city – and the oldest still in its original location. It has been there for 119 years.
That history and a sense of tradition is something that was handed down through the Barthman family for almost 100 years. Michael Shillaber was the last Barthman relation to own and work in the store. When he and his brother sold the business, they wanted more than money.
“We wanted someone who would keep the name,” Shillaber said. “Just continue the tradition. Quality. We always gave good quality, good service.”
The Shillabers sold the business in 1983. The new owner brought in Joel Kopel, now 52, to manage the store. Kopel’s wife, Renee, 47, a former swimwear model, also started working part-time. Five years later she was full-time manager of the store’s corporate gift gallery, located on the fifth floor of the same building. Recessed cases line the gallery’s four walls, displaying crystal, silver and porcelain manufactured by companies such as Lalique, New England Sterling and Lladro.
The gallery opened in 1988, the same year the Kopels’ daughter was born.
“My daughter was practically raised in the store,” Renee Kopel said. “We made a little bed under my desk and she used to sleep here.”
When the Kopels talk about William Barthman, it is clear that they are more than managers. They are the kind of people Michael Shillaber hoped would run the store when he sold it.
“I love this building, this store. I love the history,” Renee Kopel said. “They don’t make stores like William Barthman anymore. Not in the way they look and not in the service they give you.”
Because they see the store as irreplaceable, and an integral part of downtown Manhattan, the Kopels are doing everything they can to ensure its future. That includes distributing those fliers under people’s doors. The fliers advertised a special sale to downtown residents, which was held on November 15. The sale included a breakfast table catered by a nearby Starbucks, and discounts for area residents.
It is one way, the Kopels say, of reminding people who live downtown that they don’t have to go uptown to do their shopping.
“We carry a lot of things that people seem to think they need to go uptown for,” Renee Kopel said.
Joel Kopel said that Barthman’s is more than just a place to shop.
“William Barthman is not only a store,” Kopel said, “but also supports the community in so many different ways.”
One of those ways is by supporting charities including the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Kopel is also an integral part of the downtown business community. He serves on Community Board 1, and is a director of the Alliance for Downtown New York, which runs the area’s Business Improvement District.
Kopel says that everyone who lives and works downtown can contribute to the area’s revitalization by supporting local businesses. When he needs something, whether it’s printing for his business or a relaxing meal at the end of a long day, he makes sure he gets what he needs from a downtown business.
“That’s what I do,” he said, “and I want people to do that with us.”
He’s hopeful observing that business recently started to pick up. While the hard times aren’t over, he sees good things happening – not just for Barthman’s, but for everyone downtown – as people and companies come back to live and work in the neighborhood.
“I think we just need to live through this and work through this until downtown becomes whole again,” Kopel said.


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