Small Business Focus: Murray’s Sturgeon Shop

Ira Goller at Murray’s.

By Carol Tannenhauser

You won’t find schmaltz (either “excessive sentimentality” or “clarified chicken fat”) at Murray’s Sturgeon Shop, on Broadway between 89th and 90th Streets (although you will find schmaltz herring). Ira Goller, the third owner of the 72-year-old, iconic appetizing store, came to the world of smoked fish and chopped liver from Wall Street, with an MBA in economics and an MA in accounting.

“In 1989, I was incredibly frustrated,” Goller, 61, explained. “After seven years on The Street, I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I looked around for how to make the most money. Isn’t that what it was about, supporting your family? Absolutely, 100%, I’m a capitalist. I make no apologies. I’m an American and a capitalist.”

He went no further. “I never discuss politics, because I am also a merchant,” he said. “My beliefs and views stay strictly with me. A business model of offending people is not a good business model.”

“Good morning!” a man behind the counter called to a customer, who had entered the long, narrow store.

“Good morning,” the customer replied. “How are you?”

“Good,” said the counter man, “and you?”

“Good. Half a pound of nova, please.”

“Would you like to have a taste?”

As the counter man sliced the deep-pink salmon, with the skill of a surgeon, and handed the customer a piece on wax paper, Goller went on.

“A friend of mine who had a very successful coffee shop downtown wanted to team up and expand. We looked at dozens of stores, but none of them made sense. Then, someone presented this store to us. We bought it from Artie Cutler, a big restaurateur” (responsible for Carmine’s, Docks, Ollie’s, Gabriela’s and other UWS favorites). In fact, the now-defunct Artie’s Delicatessen was named for Cutler, who died of a heart attack in his sleep when he was 53, before the deli was completed. His wife finished building it out. Cutler had bought Murray’s from the “West Side Sturgeon King” himself, Murray Bernstein, who opened the shop in 1946.

“In the condition you see it in now,” Goller said. “Everything here is original, the floor, the counters, the shelves. The only addition has been the clock, sometime in the 60s, judging by the style. Other than that, nothing has changed.

“I’ve been here since September 7,1990. I bought my partner out a year later. I knew nothing about the business. My manager, Oscar, who’s been here for 40 years, helped me out a lot in the beginning. I asked questions and I learned. There were a lot of struggles. For instance, the main smokehouse that we used went out of business three months after I came.”

“A smokehouse is a building with smoking rooms — big ovens really — and the fish goes from them into a cooling space,” Goller explained. “Years ago, there used to be fans around an entire room. Nowadays, they’re actually chilled chambers. We only use boutique smokehouses, because they will customize everything for us — the fish, the smoke, the taste.

“When they smoke, it’s like when you bake: different spots in the oven have different temperatures, so each fish will taste a little different. We have established relationships, so they know what we will accept and won’t. If we find stuff we don’t like, we send it back. We’ll do without certain fish sometimes and that’s okay, because if you buy it, we want you to enjoy it.

“My philosophy has always been, Murray’s does not need to exist. We have to make ourselves relevant, because — while they won’t get the quality — people can go anyplace. They come here because, forgetting personalities, we consistently put out the absolutely best products possible. All of our fish and salads have won awards.

“We’re our biggest competitor,” he said, “because we always have to stay on top of our game. This is the only store like this left. Everybody else has expanded into a restaurant or café. This is it. There’s no place to sit down. We are standalone, strictly take-away.

“What goes on in the shop is just a small part of the business we do,” Goller continued. “We try to stay true to who we are, which is an old neighborhood store, but we have customers all over the contiguous United States, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. We deliver everywhere in the city and to Long Island and New Jersey. The only place we won’t go is Brooklyn, because of the traffic.”

Sometimes, the furthest port of call seems to be right across Central Park.

“We deliver to the East Side all day long and have a lot of East Side customers,” Goller said, “but the old-time East Siders, it’s like they can’t cross Fifth Avenue; it’s a shock to the system. We had an older East Side customer who came over to say hello just before she passed away. She hadn’t been to the West Side in 40 years! She went to Lincoln Center, she said, but that doesn’t count, because it’s a ‘cultural destination.’ West Siders cross over. East Siders, there’s some force field they can’t cross.”

“A quarter of a pound of tuna and a quarter of a pound of whitefish salad,” another customer requested.

The smell of simmering chicken soup was permeating the place. WSR was getting hungry.

“We’re here all year, all day, all week. We close two days a year: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Other holidays, we have limited hours, so employees can enjoy time with their families. It’s still a mostly Jewish clientele. When I came here, I’m going to say it was 97% Jewish. Now, I’m going to say 65%. Because who doesn’t like bagel, lox, and cream cheese? And once you’ve had ours, you can’t go someplace else.”

“You know what the beauty of the Upper West Side is?” Goller concluded. “It’s a community. Granted, there’s only a handful of so-called Mom-and-Pop shops left and we’re one of them. We’re here. You opened the door. You came in. We’re here.”

Yeah, but will you leave us like the others, too numerous to name?

“I’m leaving at 12 o’clock today,” Goller quipped. “But, really, we just signed a new lease. We have 13 more years left. We’re not going anyplace. Business is good.”

“Three quarters of a pound of sturgeon,” a customer said.

The interview was over and shopping for dinner began.

“Yes, I would like to have a taste!”

Photos by Carol Tannenhauser.

COLUMNS, FOOD, HISTORY | 34 comments | permalink
    1. dannyboy says:

      Best borscht (like beet soup).

    2. Chris says:

      So glad to hear that business is good! Murray’s is a true gem.

    3. Sid says:

      I grew up on the UWS and have memories of visiting Murray’s in a stroller! (30 years old now). Oscar has known me my whole life.

      Also a firm believer that their lox is superior to Zabar’s and Barney Greengrass, by a long shot.

    4. Kate says:

      I have been going to Murray’s since I was 4. I am 47 now. It is by far, the best smoked sable anywhere.

    5. AC says:

      Good piece! Like to see more of these type of articles on local and long time businesses.

    6. Scott says:

      “West Siders cross over. East Siders, there’s some force field they can’t cross”

      Interesting observation. But I almost never ever go to the East Side. Maybe once a year.

    7. Bruce E. Bernstein says:

      another outstanding article from Carol Tannenhauser. These are the real stories of the UWS.

    8. NYYgirl says:

      Thrilled to have at least 13 more years of Murray’s!!!
      My parents both used to come to Murray’s long before I existed; now I bring my own kids. We all love Murray’s!

    9. andreafoodia says:

      The USW sweet spot for smoked fish (buttery Eastern nova, delicately sliced sturgeon and great smoked trout), not to mention the real deal chopped liver. Excellent pickled herring selection and great gourmet salads (fruit salad – big hit). The staff is courteous and neighborhoody, knowing your likes and wants.

    10. Carlos says:

      Three cheers for Murray’s landlord who renewed them. Everyone is always kvetching about the greedy landlords, but apparently they are not all that way. I think I will have some rugelach to celebrate!

    11. Eric says:

      My family was in the appetizing business for years. As a kid I knew the late-great Connie Spizz better than I knew some of my uncles. When other kids were eating peanut butter and jelly I was being fed sturgeon. I want to like Murray’s and have gone back several times on different days of the week hoping to get a half-pound of sturgeon that wasn’t dried out or bland but it just never happened. The sturgeon at Barney Greengrass is just better … smoother and tastier. Their belly lox is fishier and saltier, and their eastern nova is sweet and oily. It makes me sad because I want old-time appetizing stores to thrive but given the price of a quarter-pound of fish my tastebuds lead me to Greengrass or (if I am downtown) to Russ & Daughters whose Gaspe Nova is still tip-top in my book.

      • Rodger Lodger says:

        I beg to differ with you re the sturgeon quality at Barney GG, but unlike you I will state it’s my opinion, not the voice of infallability.

    12. Jason says:

      I would love to shop there, but I went in the other day for some deli turkey and it’s priced at $16/lb! That’s double what’s in fairway. It’s too bad.

      • Sean says:

        Fairway W74th is like shopping on a bus.

      • Stuart says:

        Maybe it’s $16/lb because it’s kosher (the counter sign does say “kosher deli meat”, which would explain the price difference)? Fairway doesn’t have a kosher deli counter…

    13. Sandy says:

      Best tuna salad in NY without a doubt. Also, if you like prunes, the giant ones with pits are really tasty.

    14. lucette says:

      Murray’s is the best. I am always buying whitefish salad ,lox and creamed herring for my son and his family in DC. I schlep whether it be by train or by car or by bus.
      Murray’s is the best and they wont let me come down without their tasty treats. Seeing me is “secondary”

    15. Mark Moore says:

      It does not bother me to know Upper East Siders won’t cross Fifth Avenue.

    16. Robert Iulo says:

      I grew up eating smoked fish on the Lower East Side. Now, on the Upper West Side, Murray’s is my favorite.

    17. Dave says:

      And they have a marvelous knish

    18. Lizzy says:

      Oscar remembers me as a kid and asks about my family any time I stop in here. I’m 37! I’ve carried their lox (by request, and elaborately packed with ice packs) to many states and a couple continents–it’s the #1 thing friends ask for from NYC. Great news about the lease. Thanks for the article.

    19. The Abdolute best in the world… including the pickled salmon!!! My dad used to say, come over for Zfather’s Day… but only if you bring Murray’s.
      … And we were the customers from Hawaii!
      Mazzela Tov

    20. Lrahip says:

      The best vegetarian chopped liver!!! And the tuna salad…beautiful! Also, I have to put in a word for the coleslaw and potato salad.

    21. Judy says:

      Best place in the neighborhood. If only the UWS was filled with these little places.

    22. EricaC says:

      If you’re not trying to piss on them, you might want to try another approach – I don’t think your current approach is working.

    23. Paul RL says:

      I salivate like a flappy-joweled St. Bernard when I walk by. Best creamed herring anywhere!

    24. Rodger Lodger says:

      Does Murray’s have chubs? Z’s stopped carrying them years ago.

    25. Terrific article. Great pictures and many mouth watering comments that match the images..

    26. Wendy says:

      it’s fabulous but you need to be a 1% to shop there with regularity. Otherwise save it for a treat. Great Whitefish salad, sable, nova, pickled herring. We are lucky to have it still in the hood….

    27. Jeff says:

      “We just signed a new lease. We have 13 more years left. We’re not going anyplace. Business is good.”

      This made my day, great to hear.

    28. Brian says:

      I grew up across the street from Murray’s. I have many fond memories of shopping there with my parents for a special lazy weekend brunch and the high holidays, going as far back as when I was a toddler, my dad letting me hold our numbered ticket as we waited in line, running my fingers along the square mosaic tiles (the gold ones were a particular delight) below the refrigerated display cases, lifting myself up on my tippy-toes, straining to see the fish lined up behind the glass. I’m 40 years old now, I live further uptown, but when I get the chance every so often I stop in for some of Murray’s best-in-the-world tuna salad or a bagel with vegetable cream cheese and nova. Oscar still remembers me and always asks, “How’s your mom?” It’s such a comfort that no matter how life changes, this same delicious food, the same warm staff, the same look of the shop and those same square mosaic tiles, they’re all still there. But now I can see the fish in the case quite easily, and I have to reach down to run my fingers over those gold mosaic tiles.