The end of an era: the story of a stationery store

By Joseph Berger for The New York Times 

About six years ago, Jacob Gutman, an owner of Court Street Office Supplies, noticed that the lawyers and the judges in the nearby courthouses were no longer buying large leather-bound appointment books to anchor their desks.

January was usually the busiest month, a time for restocking stationery, but bookkeepers and accountants in the nearby municipal offices were no longer ordering as many ledger books and the charts containing the latest tax rates. He saw that younger people — students and teachers at the neighborhood’s five colleges and graduate schools, workers and residents of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill — were no longer buying refills for their pocket calendars.

Plainly, the ubiquity of computers, smartphones and other electronic gadgets were the culprits. So Mr. Gutman reinvigorated personal service, stocked a wide range of digitized products, even beefed up a line of toys to lure nearby residents. He was able to keep his store afloat. He even weathered the arrival of big-box stores like Staples and Office Depot.

But only for so long. The greater ease of shopping online and its increasing adoption by Americans has meant that once-likely customers are no longer buying anything from him, even if they come in to browse.

“I sell this for $4.89,” said Mr. Gutman, snatching a decorative electric candle from a shelf as an example. “Someone comes in and with his cellphone takes a picture. It takes him less than three seconds and he can get it online for $4.29.”

The wounds have been so bone-deep that the store found it difficult to cover its overhead and turn much of a profit. And so on Feb. 16, just before the eve of the Sabbath, Mr. Gutman, a Hasidic Jew with a long white beard and a gentle voice and manner, closed the store.

It had been a fixture of Brooklyn’s clamorous heart for 35 years, selling pens, paper, rubber bands and manila files, as well as such specialized items as Blumberg legal forms for divorce petitions, apartment leases and all manners of litigation.

The store sold pens, paper, rubber bands and manila files, as well as specialized items like Blumberg legal forms for divorce petitions, apartment leases and all manners of litigation. Credit Mark Abramson for The New York Times
He spent the last day manning a cash register for a line of bargain hunters as well as sad-eyed regulars who were picking up the remaining shards of merchandise strewn on the higgledy-piggledy shelves at 50% off.

Mr. Gutman, it turns out, is transforming Court Street Office Supplies into an online retailer as well, delivering and mailing stationery out of his 7,000-square-foot warehouse two miles away in a scruffy industrial slice of Gowanus, but dropping some of the services he once offered, like photocopying, faxing and that mainstay of many a stationery store, a notary. Those were services essential to poorer litigants who maneuvered the courts on their own.

It’s not news that what is happening to mom-and-pop stationery stores is also happening to small stores that sell books, clothing, toys, gifts, hardware. The trend partly explains the changeover into chain-store thoroughfares of once idiosyncratic shopping streets like Broadway on the Upper West Side.

Ted Potrikus, president of the Retail Council of New York State, which represents 2 000 merchants, identifies the problem as “the store in the palm of our hand — your cellphone”.

“People don’t want to spend their time downtown looking for a place to park — they’d rather do it online,” he said. He added that rising rents in popular downtowns have also been a factor in the shuttering of small and even big stores. With stationery, online shopping and digitization are such powerful trends that Staples closed almost 300 of its roughly 2,150 stores in North America between 2014 and 2016.

Still, for those who work and live around Court Street, the shift is causing heartache.

“It’s a tragedy, a sad day because there are lots of items you don’t find in places like Staples — rubber stamps and ribbons for adding machines,” said one shopper, John McGill, 70, who operates Two for the Pot, a whole-bean coffee and imported teas shop on Clinton Street. “Besides, I like these guys. I will miss them. They’re knowledgeable. They’re friendly and some of them are pretty funny when we banter over the counter.”

George Jacobs, 71, a computer programmer who came over from Bushwick, said Court Street stocked hard-to-get 11-by-17-inch engineering paper that he uses to make flow charts and drawings on his HP Plotter, a type of machine that has essentially been replaced by large-format inkjet printers.

Court Street Office Supplies will become an online retailer, delivering and mailing stationery out of a 7,000-square-foot warehouse two miles away in Gowanus. Credit Mark Abramson for The New York Times
Megan Schoenberg, 26, who works in her family’s real estate business, was in the store on its last day buying a small footstool and a transparent plastic file box.

“It’s sad because this is a monument in the neighborhood,” she said.

She recalled a similar feeling she had with the closing of a Brooklyn Heights pharmacy and a video store. Others mentioned the loss of BookCourt, a literary landmark that had been in Cobble Hill since 1981 and offered periodic talks by such writers as Don DeLillo and Junot Díaz. Some customers predicted they would have to round up a car to get to Brooklyn malls where they can find a Staples-type store. Ronald Goldbrenner, a longtime attorney in Downtown Brooklyn, compared the loss of the Court Street stationery store to losing a “foundational” business like a Zabar’s.

“These are classic institutions,” he said, “and what makes the difference is the excellence. What ordinary merchants do they do better and more, and this place is an example of better and more.”

Rhea Lieber, a senior at the nearby Packer School, wrote a letter, in both Hebrew and English, lamenting the loss. “The Packer community is devastated to say goodbye to such a neighborhood staple (no pun intended),” she wrote.

In some ways, Court Street was a throwback to an earlier time. It had a glass counter that was stocked with numerous brands of fountain pens, including a $500 Pelikan, and it sold ink for those pens. It carried carbon paper.

“There are still some lawyers who use it,” Mr. Gutman said

And who uses fountain pens anymore?

“Real traditional lawyers or judges from the old school, and they usually use it to make an impression when they’re with people,” he said.

“It’s a tragedy, a sad day because there are lots of items you don’t find in places like Staples — rubber stamps and ribbons for adding machines,” said one shopper. “Besides, I like these guys. I will miss them.”

But many younger customers don’t even bother with ballpoints. “Some don’t have a pen in their in their pocket,” said Mr. Gutman. “The ones that do, their image is the iPhone that they have in their hands. It’s almost embarrassing for them to have a pen.”

Mr. Gutman got into the stationery business in 1982 when his own trade — cutting and selling diamonds — suffered in an industrywide slump. A grocer friend, Lazar Abramowitz, persuaded him to team up and buy an available stationery store on Court Street called Card Cabin.

“At that time, there was no Staples,” Mr. Gutman said. “There were real people and real merchandise.”

When Mr. Abramowitz died three years ago, his widow, Miriam, became Mr. Gutman’s partner.

His motivation for finally closing was not because of a rent increase, he said. His lease had more than two years left, and his landlord had offered to lower the rent — which, given neighborhood prices can be estimated at roughly $30,000 a month, though Mr. Gutman did not want to reveal the number. And his 12 employees were not asking for raises.

A visit in the last days of March to the Court Street warehouse, its eight aisles piled to the 24-foot tall ceilings with cartons of Bic pens, Sharpie markers, Post-it Notes and Brother ink cartridges, suggested that many customers have found other options. Some of the larger accounts call in orders, but not many individuals are trooping from Downtown Brooklyn for a pen or roll of Scotch tape.

Indeed, Mr. Gutman and his partner Ms. Abramowitz say that with stationery becoming a diminishing need in the age of computers, they are gradually concentrating on becoming an office furniture purveyor. They have hired a designer, Brian Glickman, who arranged Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue offices and are hoping to design and furnish work stations for small businesses.

“Kids today don’t want to work behind desks,” Mr. Glickman said. “They want time to decompress and want things like pool tables.”

Mr. Gutman is not yet supplying pool tables, but as habits continue to change, who knows?

Image credit: New York Times

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