Monthly Archives: June 2009

Mr. Fashion

This weekend, I came across a wonderful hat and clothing store in Asbury Park, New Jersey, called Mr. Fashion. Its slogan is classic: “For The Man Who Cares”. I noticed it on Thursday night, next to a bar and restaurant called The Brickwall; its hats and shoes sitting in the display window were classy and old-fashioned. I have searched far and wide for fedoras, and so returned the next day.

One of the last great stores in Asbury Park

One of the last great stores in Asbury Park

I grew up about 15 minutes from Asbury Park, and the seaside town still attracts me like a magnet. It was the home of Springsteen and the E Street Band and a legendary music scene in the 1970s; before that, from the late 19th century until the 1940s, it was one of the most popular shore destinations for people from the whole East Coast.

Long rundown, but redeveloping in fits, Asbury is still the most unique and historic town in the area. Unlike other nearby beach towns, it hasn’t yet been wholly overwhelmed by tasteless, anonymous luxury condos. A few have gone up; others, as has happened many times in the past, just stopped mid-construction. Asbury has done a fair job of preserving its old buildings and tradition, although they’re constantly under threat. The way society has changed since World War II – from urban to suburban – has not been kind to Asbury.

Mr. Fashion is one of the few old stayers of Cookman Avenue, once the throbbing artery of downtown Asbury Park. On each side of it are empty storefronts, the kind of shop – a display window that juts out, an entrance passing through the middle – that I have seen on many old Main streets. The architecture on Cookman Avenue, and elsewhere in Asbury, is really stunning.

The old Steinbach building across from Mr. Fashion reminds me of the Flatiron building in New York. (Steinbach had been a fixture in Asbury Park since the late 1800s, and this building was its new flagship store, built at the turn of the century, billed as “the world’s largest resort department store.” This building initially contained five floors – a basement and four floors – and by the 1930s, a fifth floor and clock tower were added.)

Other structures on the block are fine art deco examples, such as the seemingly vacant office building at 50 Cookman Avenue. The old Asbury Park Press headquarters across the street from the Steinbach building is also remarkable.

The Mr. Fashion entrance is also notable: notice how the awning says Mr. Fashion’s, and the 1960s-era sign goes with Mr. Fashion. Once inside, I spoke to the proprietor, Mark Gray, for about twenty minutes. We talked hats and Asbury. The hat industry, he told me, was devastated after John F. Kennedy did not wear a hat at his inauguration – a first. Gray told me that his father sold hats and had a fine collection; he never remembers him leaving the house without one on. “Then, you weren’t a man unless you wore a hat,” Gray said. In recent years, the hat industry has revived in part, Gray said.

Mr. Fashion is a legendary place in Asbury and synonymous with Cookman Avenue. Gray is its second owner in the shop’s 40-year history: he bought it two years ago from Carl Williams, the former Asbury Park mayor who owned the store all that time. Gray pointed to a distinguished black-and-white photo of Williams, presumably taken in his office when he was the mayor, on a wall to the right of the register.

Gray grew up in Neptune, one town over from Asbury, but recalled for me the great attractions the city once had. It was the lifeblood of Monmouth County. He shared those memories with a bittersweet tone. He still keeps the store open late on Friday nights, an old Asbury tradition (also Wednesdays then, too), before malls ruined downtown shopping areas like this one.

In the end, I ended up buying a sharp white fedora with a feather on the side. Gray kindly volunteered a discount.

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The Tourist Mayor

A great editorial from the Daily News a few days ago. So few people I know seem to understand how Bloomberg has turned a city of so much character and history into a big shopping mall and overpriced tourist trap. Brookyln, sadly, is the next target of their steamroller: for instance, the rezoning of Coney Island, a luxury condo to block the Brooklyn Bridge, glass monsters occupying the Williamsburg waterfront.

More and more, it feels like “Alice in Wonderland,” but underlying the absurdity, it’s like a tale of two cities, a story of the haves and the have-nots.

And the kicker:

Yes, 10 years from now, we’ll be looking back at former Mayor Bloomberg’s absurd remaking of a city of unique character to one big homogenized mall, where the tourists feel right at home because it is exactly the same as their hometown.

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Clothing swaps

Last weekend, I went to a swap party of the Brooklyn Clothing Exchange, a group I found on Meetup.com. I usually shop at thrift stores or pick up stuff from my brother or friends. Until recently, my “vintage” wardrobe was largely made of my grandfather’s old clothes, stuff he hadn’t worn in decades. I guess they were vintage, but to him they were just old.

The setting for the event was sublime: The Macon branch of the Brooklyn library system, located in the neighborhood of Stuyvesant Heights, is a stately and gorgeous Classic Revival red-brick building erected more than a hundred years ago as a gift from Andrew Carnegie. The swap was held in the basement.

I wrote about the event for Minyanville.com: Read it here.

It was a rewarding experience personally. Living in New York City is never easy, and this was even more pronounced the last five years as Big Finance hijacked the city and raised the cost of living for everyone. The people I met at the swap are tapped into a network that recycles clothes, lives sustainably, brings people together for potluck dinners and street fairs and festivals, and spans the boroughs for eccentric events. They were down to earth, hopeful, friendly and giving.

It was heartening to find this community. I expect to go to more events, and if you feel the same way as me, look for the Brooklyn Clothing Exchange, NYC Potluck, and NYC Street Fairs and Festivals groups on Meetup.

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Racing’s digital historian

Horse racing has been one of the most important parts of my life. It’s what got me into writing, on which I’ve done my most rewarding work, where I’ve had the most fun; it has produced meaningful and lasting friendships and put me in touch with some of the most eccentric and curious people I’ve met. So many of my memories of the racetrack are tied up with the horses and races that pulled me into this long — probably lifelong — trip through the Sport of Kings.

It was with glee, then, that for the last three years I witnessed an anonymous person post one great race after another from the 1990s on YouTube, the formative years of my friends and me. His efforts have brought back a flood of memories in which I’ve delightfully immersed myself. My memories were already lucid, but the videos have helped ingrain them. I consider myself a technology dinosaur, by choice, but this is one advancement for which I am grateful.

For a long time I wished to track this person down, who goes by “partymanners” online. Last week for the Times, I did so. His name is Jim Conti and he lives in Long Island. You can see my blog post on this person and then a revised version for last Sunday’s newspaper on my Articles section here.

After corresponding over email, Conti and I spoke at length on the phone. He is a few years older than me, but our formative period was the same. It was nostalgic, sad, and enjoyable to talk about those great horses and races of our youth. Sad because what drew me into racing is now lost, perhaps forever — I assumed that what I witnessed in the mid-1990s would remain that exciting and vigorous, but it turns out that was the high-water mark, probably the last golden era of racing. I always wanted to be like Runyon, Liebling, Nack and others who used horse racing and its drama, characters, and language as a tablet for such rich reporting. I think it’ll just take more searching.

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