Weekend History: The Tricks to Shopping on the Upper West Side 80 Years Ago


Broadway and West 83rd Street, circa 1937. Photo via MCNY.

By Lyla Ward

(excerpted from: Broadway, Schrafft’s and Seeded Rye: Growing Up Slightly Jewish on the Upper West Side)

Broadway in our neighborhood was retail heaven in the Thirties and early Forties. There were grocery stores; bakeries; haberdasheries; lingerie shops; shoe stores for men, women, and children; fish markets; stationery stores; shoe repair shops; candy stores; drug stores; milliners; and then ten blocks further on there were grocery stores, haberdasheries, lingerie shops, shoe stores . . . . Each mini-neighborhood had its own retail support system, and each family knew which store was “the best.” Fortunately for the store owners, opinions differed: my mother thought the lox was less salty at the little appetizer store on the west side of Broadway; my friend, Selma’s, mother thought the lox was less salty at the little appetizer store on 91st Street—so both stores stayed in business.

Although my mother’s rating system covered quality stores in most categories—she bought my father’s white-on-white shirts only from Briggs’s on Broadway and 85th Street, and my father bought her alligator bags (no talk of endangered species, then) only from The Plymouth Shop on Broadway and 82nd Street—when it came to products that might affect my brother’s, sister’s, or my physical well- being, the “best” took on a new meaning. Shoes to support the malleable bones in our feet were such an item. In her view (and what other views were there?) Indian Walk was the only shoe store fit to fit our feet.

I can’t say I remember when I traded my booties in for my first real shoes—high white lace-ups—but I was told these and all others of descending height were bought at our local Indian Walk Shoe Store. Before school opened in the fall (always after Labor Day), and in the spring, before Easter, I could look forward to getting new shoes. Possibly because I knew the ritual would end with an Indian Walk balloon tied to my wrist, I participated willingly in the process.

Until I was nine or ten, for school days I had my choice of brown oxfords with brown shoelaces or brown oxfords with brown shoelaces—nothing less would do to hold my bones together. If I was so bold as to suggest I might possibly like a different style, my mother described in graphic detail what could happen to a child’s foot if left unsupported: had I seen any ducks recently? Noticed their splayed feet? It wasn’t until saddle shoes came into style, and Indian Walk and my mother declared them safe, that I got any relief from the drab brown everyday shoes.

If our feet were a major concern, imagine where our stomachs stood. Food, undisputedly vital for our health and well-being, had to be of the finest quality. That’s where Citarella came in. At that time only a neighborhood fish market, it stood at first place in the Betty Blake consumer report. I don’t think Mom had spoken to any fishermen personally, but she was convinced Citarella’s fish was rushed from hook to store without passing “Go.” According to her, you could “taste the freshness.” I would have been happy to take her word for it and skip the fish. When we asked “What’s for dinner?” and the answer was “Fish,” a general groan went up. Nevertheless, once a week there it was on the plate where the steak should have been. Our complaints went unheeded—fish, after all, was brain food; and the Halibut Ring she made from a recipe in the Settlement Cookbook, another ”best” in her book, combined so much cream and butter and eggs, we couldn’t help thinking how great it would be if only it didn’t have the fish.

Though all food was not as vital to our health, the rye bread from Cake Masters was incomparable, as was tub butter from Daitch’s (where else was it creamery fresh?) and sturgeon from Barney Greengrass (in a class by itself). Mother said so, and in our family it was generally agreed, when it came to food, clothes or home goods, Mother knew “bests.” Oh, and by the way: Was that fish thing fact or fiction? Hard to prove—it might just be coincidence that we all turned out to be so brilliant.

Lyla Ward’s Broadway, Schrafft’s and Seeded Rye: Growing Up Slightly Jewish on the Upper West Side is available at bookstores throughout the city, and on Amazon.

HISTORY | 21 comments | permalink
    1. Mireya says:

      I love love love stories about the neighborhood. And if there are pictures I am even happier. Must check out the book.

    2. Jean says:

      Just came across this information about these stores…
      From Brownstoner web site:

      https://www.brownstoner.com/history/past-and-present-the-julius-kayser-company-clinton-hill/

    3. Eileen Martinson Lavine says:

      This is very nostalgic for me – I grew up on West End and 99th St., then in 1936 we moved to Broadway and 92nd – “our” grocery was Gristede’s and I know whenever I went to get something, I just said “Charge it.” We went to Daitch also, for dairy. Schlombohm’s was a great candy store with ice cream cones that had a lip at the top for an extra ball of ice cream. I loved the way the dairyman would just stick a knife in an enormous block of butter and invariably what he came up with was an exact pound. I recall Indian Walk shoes, Barton candy, and many more.

      • UWSHebrew says:

        “then in 1936 we moved”?! I hope I am still commenting coherently on WSR when I get to be your age!

      • GG says:

        God Bless You, Eileen!

        I loved reading this comment. You are the heart and soul of this neighborhood.

        I don’t go as far back as you but I also remember my parents having accounts at various businesses and restaurants on the UWS and me and my brothers and sisters going in and saying “charge it” or “put it on our account” too!:) I don’t think many places do that these days. There was so much trust and mutual respect back in those days. Not so much today. We just don’t know each other like we used to and it makes me sad.

        Again, thanks for contributing to the conversation. I look forward to hearing more of your stories from back in the day. Hope you have a great day!

      • You are the first person I’ve come across in a long time who remembers, Shlombohms–Because we celebrated every holiday,
        we bought our candy canes there every year.

    4. JOAN EHRLICH says:

      Didn’t Indian Walk have an X-ray machine that would show the feet in the shoe??

    5. Sheryl Fox says:

      Love these stories and great to understand the history of some of my faves still in business (Citarella!)

    6. Jean says:

      I still have my very first shoes ( they were bronzed ) from INDIAN WALK. Proudly displayed on a shelf at my home.

    7. Ana-Lisa says:

      I remember Indian Walk well.
      Not sure what year it opened but there was fish store in the Belnord for many years. Not sure if it proceeded Citarella, I remember the saw dust on the floor and the large scales hanging over the counter. Wasn’t the best of smelling places.

    8. CeeCee Voorhees says:

      Life was so simple then, I was born in 1935, and would do it all over again!

    9. bernice grossman says:

      I remember Tip Toe Inn and their wonderful sandwiches on very thin rye bread cut in thirds….and how about Lichtmans Hungarian baker shop and their very famous delicious Babka baked in Bundt pans. And how about parking without meters or alternating side days…Barney Greengrass? and on and on….

    10. NYYgirl says:

      Love this book! Was raised on UWS & could not put this book down – husband has lived on UWS for decades & couldn’t wait until I was done to read it (then he couldn’t put it down either🙂) Highly recommend!!!!

    11. Iris Agar says:

      Folks on this page should get a book called the Upper West Side Story, authors last name Selwyn. Thick book, full of all kinds of UWS tidbits & nostalgia, you will love the book!!! Barnes & Noble!!!

    12. iris agar says:

      I was also raised on the UWS – 103rd. St. & WEA. It was such a different world then, had a much more small town feel to the nab. I loved it. Rappaports Childrens clothing, Morris Brothers, Broadmoor’s Pharmacy, Harry Lewis Shoes. Does anyone here remember Rangers Day Camp, Schwartzie’s Day Camp & playgroup?? A really wonderful place to be a child.

      • manhattan mark says:

        Iris, I remember all of what you remembered. I grew up on 105th street and West End Ave. My time was the late 1930’s
        thru the 1960’s , I’m still here, but now a little further south.

    13. iris agar says:

      Anyone here go to Joan of Arc JHS???

    14. Mark says:

      I worked at Cake Masters through my college years. Both at 72nd street, where I could watch the cake bakers decorate and at 99th street, where I would eat bread fresh out of the oven if I worked the late night shift. I was held up at gun point at 99th street and at the 85th street locations.

    15. Jimbo says:

      Bloom’s Bakery anyone?????

    16. Iris Agar says:

      I can’t imagine a more wonderful neighborhood
      to have grown up in than the UWS. Even then
      I knew it was a real high. It had such a very special & utterly charming feel about it. The stores were so individual & loaded with a certain European character – maybe that is what made the neighborhood so special. The 97th Street playground was heaven, the Rivera & Riverside movie theaters were wonderful, especially on a very hot Saturday afternoon, The Paris Hotel swimming pool was great. I moved back to the UWS in 1993 & it just isn’t the same at all.

    17. I F Agar says:

      I can’t imagine a more wonderful neighborhood
      to have grown up in than the UWS. Even then
      I knew it was a real high. It had such a very special & utterly charming feel about it. The stores were so individual & loaded with a certain European character – maybe that is what made the neighborhood so special. The 97th Street playground was heaven, the Rivera & Riverside movie theaters were wonderful, especially on a very hot Saturday afternoon, The Paris Hotel swimming pool was great. I moved back to the UWS in 1993 & it just isn’t the same at all.