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.