Benowitz', Rogen's and Borchansky's

  or shopping on Skillman Avenue

                         by Steven Wolfe

          The most significant store to me as a child was the corner candy store located on Skillman Avenue and 46th Street.  When we moved in, it was owned by a man named Benowitz.  Even after he sold the store, the name “Benowitz’s” remained for many years.  It had a complete soda fountain, served hamburgers and sandwiches, carried magazines, newspapers and comic books.  It also had a large display of candy bars and gum, including Topps’ bubble gum, the worst gum imaginable, hard as a rock and tasteless.  Nevertheless, we bought it because it came with baseball cards which many of us collected. Once we’d extracted the baseball cards, we threw the gum away.

Lasch's Bakery_edited_edited.jpg

Lasch's Bakery and Benowitz'

Skillman Avenue Weiss Hardware_edited_ed

Rogen's, Borchansky's and Weiss Hardware

          There were pink Spalding balls (known as “Spaldeens”), lots of odd items that kids love, and household goods.  At the fountain, you could swivel around on the seats and order a cherry Coke which was a normal Coke with a spritz of cherry syrup.  I think it cost an extra penny for the syrup.  And of course, the ever popular egg cream, made with milk, a spritz of fizzy water and either chocolate or vanilla syrup.  On the nights when my father asked me if I wanted to take a walk with him, I knew we were going to Benowitz’s where I would most likely have an ice cream soda or a sundae. 

 

          Across 46th Street was a neighborhood bar called Davey Jones Locker.  I never went in there, but during the World Series, they posted a box score, inning by inning.  This meant that I could pass the store at the end of the school day on my way home, and get the current score.  When I got home, I would turn on the radio to listen to the game, and once we got a television set, watch it on TV.  It seemed as if every year it was the Yankees pitted against the Dodgers.  I was a Yankee fan but there were quite a few Dodgers fans whose constant lament was, “Wait ‘til next year.” 

 

          Down the block from Benowitz’s was a butcher, aptly named Herman Hacker.  In the sixth grade, I was selected to play the evil scientist was in a school play.  My opening line was “Master, master, the elixir is ready,” spoken with a sinister grimace.  For the role, I needed a white coat.  My mother went to Herman Hacker, who, together with his staff, was always attired in white coats, and he graciously loaned me one for the performance.  It helped.  I was a great success and heard tell afterwards that I had scared all the first graders. 

 

          On the other side of the avenue on the corner of 46th Street was Rogen’s grocery store.  My mother shopped there and avoided the only large chain store in the neighborhood, the A&P on 43rd Avenue.  She preferred the small store and its friendly atmosphere – we had a relationship with the owners.  When Mr. Rogen sold his store, it was bought by a younger, very hard working guy.  He made every effort to succeed in a difficult occupation.  Over time, all the mom and pop stores of my day obsolesced, overtaken first by the large chain stores and then, by the Internet. 

 

          Next to Rogen’s was the fruit and vegetable store owned by an aged foreign-born gentleman named Borchansky.  He was from Russia and spoke with a thick accent.  He had a grandson a little older than me named Michael Birch.  I recall feeling some contempt towards him when I learned that he had changed his name legally to get away from Borchansky.  Of course, with a name like Wolfe, especially spelled with an “e” on the end, my own name gave no hint as to my origins or ethnicity either, and may be why I resented him.

 

          Mr. Weiss owned the hardware store next door to Borchansky’s.  He had been in the neighborhood for several decades and regaled me with stories of what it was like there in the 1930’s.  He told me about all the empty space that was there before “civilization” came to Sunnyside.  It was hard to believe there had been so much empty space not that long before, but I have seen photographs which document just that.  The big boom came as a result of building the number 7 train to Flushing.  You could get on the subway at Bliss Street and be at Grand Central in twelve minutes.  My father’s office was located at Grand Central, the deciding factor in our moving into a house in Sunnyside in 1944.

 

          On 43rd Avenue, right next to the A&P was the combination pool hall and bowling alley.  My parents probably did not know how much time I spent there.  I was not a great pool player but I did bowl well.  The problem was you had to pay for each “line” or game you bowled.  The pins were set by hand since there were no automatic pinsetters yet.  I discovered that when they were short of help, I could set pins and get one free game for every three games of pin-setting I did.  I got lots of free games that way.

 

          And always wanting to look good for the girls, I went to Tony’s barber shop on 48th Street.  After each haircut, Tony anointed my head with a product which kept my hair in place.  Only a hurricane force wind could blow it out of place.  The product, “Kipso,” was viscous and pink, and I persuaded Tony to sell me a bottle now and then so that I could use it every day.  I used it for years until shortly after I got married when my wife discarded it just as summarily as my mother had thrown out my baseball cards and comic books.  But I do not think that antique Kipso would have any value; nor would my high-top red sneakers which also were rejected by my wife.  Oh well, we move on.

Steven Wolfe is a partner with the law firm Eaton and Van Winkle.  His interests include amateur photography, philately, tennis, card playing, reading history especially about World War II and the Holocaust, and world travel which has taken him to four continents.