Back in the day, people of all ages were drawn to stationery stores to acquire items which, for the most part, could only be found at one. Ken Marion, who grew up across the street from Levy Brothers on Broadway between 83rd and 84th Streets, wrote about his personal connection with this business on his blog Leaving West 83rd Street.
Unlike earlier stationers which focused almost entirely on paper supplies, pens and pencils, stationery stores began to evolved in the 1950s to include many other items. Marion describes Levy Brothers as “an all purpose stationery, gadget and toy store. This place was an important stopping point for children, adolescents and adults in the neighborhood.”
Goods sold included school supplies, paperback books, greeting cards, art supplies, Spaldeens (bouncy rubber balls), and even bikes, basketballs and blow up Bozo punching bags.
As an adolescent, while not allowed by his family to purchase a toy gun, Marion did have a particular affection for roll caps, sold at Levy Bros. “Red rolls with little bumps of something that exploded, popped really, and smelled great when they were put in a toy gun, popped with a pencil or stomped on the sidewalk.”
As a child, Marion was not only a customer, but he also worked at Levy Brothers during the Christmas season, convincing parents to buy relatively higher priced “educational toys.”
Stationery stores were the major source of schools supplies. Some items on a long list that would make most baby boomers nostalgic, many essentials no longer or rarely used post -computer, include colored 24″x 36′ sheets of oak tag poster board, multi-colored construction paper, coloring books, #2 Faber pencils, pencil sharpeners, rubber cement, Elmer’s glue (first marketed 1947), tubes of Duco Cement, graph paper, compasses, protractors, rulers (in wood or sometimes in red), and yellow or blue plastic and Scotch Tape.
Crayons were a very important stationery store item, especially when a notable new twist was announced, like Crayola’s 1958 launch of the 64 crayon set with a sharpener built into the box.
But, as beloved as stationery stores were, owners found that making ends meet was an uphill battle as real estate became more expensive on the Upper West Side.
In 1985, Paul Kaplan, one of the owners of Golden’s Stationery, on Broadway between 94th and 95th street, described as “the quintessential stationery story,” spoke with a New York Magazine writer about the state of his business.
Speaking of the futility of staying in the business, Kaplan said: “If my rent were to go up substantially, which I assume it would even if we weren’t torn down, it’s not as if could just start charging higher prices….I can’t charge $2.99 for Scotch tape that everyone else is charging $2.49 … What it does mean is that I’ll only carry the expensive lines.” Resigned, Kaplan expected that rents would be raised exorbitantly and his lease would not be renewed after 1987. After 30 years he had spent developing the shop, he grieved, “It’s all worth zero now. Zero.”
Despite the ups and downs of the economy over the decades and the challenges of the current COVID period, Stationery and Toy World, Gold Leaf Stationers and Janoff’s Stationery are among few stores that remain, encouraging customers to shop local. Stationery and Toy World even has a chalkboard sign outside the shop urging support of mom and pop businesses.