Time, Typewriters and the Adelmans
Mary Adelman’s typewriter repair shop kept Manhattan writers, both famous and obscure, working for more than 50 years. It’s been almost a year since her death, which was one more in a series of events that marked the dramatic change in the Upper West Side, events that turned it from a neighborhood catering to middle-class families, struggling writers and actors into the latest hotspot, competing with SoHo (south of Houston Street), Tribeca (the Triangle Below Canal Street), and NoHo (north of Houston). It even had its own acronym: UWS.
Adelman and her husband Stanley, who died in 1995, were stalwarts in that other neighborhood, their Osner Business Machine shop on Amsterdam Avenue between 78th and 79th Street servicing typewriters of the likes of Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nora Ephron and David Mamet.
But it wasn’t just celebrities that relied on Osner. We all did, and were all treated with the same patience and efficiency—and, when our machines died, with solace.
I moved into the neighborhood in the fall of 1965, a young and unproven writer. The Upper East Side was more popular in those days, the full impact of the Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Project having not yet spread that far west of Central Park and north of Columbus Circle. This was part of why I preferred the West Side; its low profile made it cheaper. My other reasoning had to do more with look and feel. The combination of brownstones, typically five-story walk-ups, and grand old majestic buildings imbued the area with a sense of stability and elegance while permitting it to remain in human scale, distinctly different from the Upper East Side, where new high-rises dwarfed residents and seemed to sprout daily.
Years later, the Landmark Preservation Commission would recognize its significance and declare much of the area officially historic, protecting its design features from change. But in 1965 it was just a neighborhood seeking positive affirmation, admittedly seedy in places. According to popular views expressed in conversation and print, crime in those years was rampant on the Upper West Side. West 84th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues was described in The New York Times in 1961 as “a block of decaying tenements packed with poor Puerto Ricans and Negro families and the gathering place of drunks, narcotics addicts and sexual perverts.” The perilous quality of life in that very neighborhood was a terrifying presence in Saul Bellow’s award-winning novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, published in 1970. As one character says, “New York makes one think about the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and Gomorrah, the end of the world.”
Outside perceptions aside, we were a community, even shopkeepers exhibiting the friendly behavior of a small town. While Zabar’s on Broadway and 80th Street was well on it its way to building its reputation as a world-class delicatessen, locals knew near closing to ask for cold cuts and smoked salmon ends at half-off; though Big Nick’s Burger Joint and Pizza on at 77th did not offer artichoke hearts on its pizza, I was invited to supply a can for them to add to their sausage topping.
The Adelmans were part of that familial group. In those early days, Stanley was a partner of shop owner Karl Osner, having signed on as a repairman after World War II. When Osner retired in 1968 he sold out to Stanley. Mary joined him in the shop, he in charge of repairs and she the face of the business at the front counter.
My initial contact was out of need, a source for ribbons and service for my used Royal standard, but it soon morphed into friendship. When business was slow and I was unable to work, I would visit and listen as Stanley shared stories of how he and his father survived five concentration camps during the war, including macabre accounts of children staging corpses for amusement: “Toys were in short supply,” said Stanley, who was born in Poland and arrived in New York after the war. Mary, born in Belgium, came to the U.S. via London and Canada.
Our friendship grew. I occasionally joined them for dinner at their apartment around the corner on West 79th Street. On Sundays when the shop was closed I was invited to their house in Putnam Valley, to sail with Stanley on the nearby lake in summer, and skate on the ice in winter. Mary was not only a good cook, but liked to search the woods for wild mushrooms, which she treated with olive oil and fresh herbs.
We talked about my writing, but more often about Stanley’s life during the war. I felt a need to respond with something meaningful, if only to prove that I was paying attention; rarely did I succeed. After an account of Stanley and his father’s time in one concentration camp, I ventured that surviving such an experience must have strengthened his faith in God. “The opposite,” he said. “I came away asking if there is a God how could he put us through that?”
Those years were a period of transition for the Upper West Side. The impact of the Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Project, begun in the 1950s with the condemning of tenements, warehouses and small shops and replacing them with the hugely ambitious Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and then the Lincoln Towers apartment complex, was finally creeping north of West 72nd Street and east of West End Avenue. As rents increased in the 1970s and 1980s, quirky little shops along Broadway, Amsterdam and especially Columbus Avenues were replaced by fancy boutiques and expensive restaurants.
My personal favorites—Gitletz, selling Kosher Deli on Broadway and 77th, Tap-A-Keg with draft beer and free popcorn on Columbus between 74th and 75th Streets, and the Last Wound Up with its throwback mechanical toys at 73rd Street—were suddenly gone, and with them the laundromats and tiny key shops catering to the everyday needs of working class residents.
But there were always the Adelmans, Mary up front and Stanley in back, not only nursing along my Royal but helping satisfy my fascination for old machines. It was Stanley who found me a pre-World War II Hermes Baby and the prize of my collection, a pristine Royal portable, in its original wooden carrying case. I remember the phone call: “Skip,” he said, “come over; I’ve got a good one.”
In time I managed to patch together a living through assignments for Audubon magazine, travel pieces for The New York Times and The Washington Post, and reporting for the New York bureau of Time. When my first book was published in 1979, I proudly presented a copy to the Adelmans for their shelf of books from other customers.
Then in 1984, while riding his bike down a hill near their house in Putnam Valley, Stanley’s front wheel hit a rock; he flipped off the bike and struck his head on the road. He never fully recovered, his ability to speak seriously impacted. I visited him at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in northern Manhattan, and later a midtown rehab center. Sitting at his bedside during our one-way conversations, I wondered what could possibly be going through his still active mind about this ironic turn in his life.
Adelman died in 1995 at 72. By then the typewriter business had already been hurt by word processing and computers; it would not improve. The shop closed in 2001.
The neighborhood, too, was suffering, albeit not in the eyes of the city’s politicians and power brokers. For them the Upper West Side was evolving just as they had envisioned when urban renewal was put in motion, where shops generating moderate income were being replaced and rents were going up, a trend that would continue and quicken as the years rolled by.
It was good for the economics of the city but not for me. More than bricks and mortar, these stores were part of our daily lives. Eeyore’s Books for Children, at Broadway near 79th before it closed in 1993, offered guidance for young readers and parents. Shakespeare and Company, the Broadway and 80th Street branch of that independent New York chain that closed in 1996, not only sold books and hard-to-find literary magazines but offered patrons an opportunity to hear authors such as Toni Morrison read their work. The Broadway Nut Shop at 81st Street drew sweets aficionados to its imported and domestic chocolates, marzipan and dried fruits, and especially nuts, freshly roasted, salted and unsalted, mixed and plain, shelled and unshelled; it closed in 2002.
The trend quickened in the next decade. H&H Bagels, on the corner of Broadway and 80th Street since 1972, closed in 2012, disheartening though the cost of a single bagel had risen from eight cents to an absurd $1.40. A greater loss was Big Nick’s in 2013. Perhaps most shocking that same year was news that the Collegiate School, nomadic early in its 385 years but on 77th and West End since 1892, was moving to 62nd Street.
The fundamental nature of the Upper West Side was changing, moving away from a residential neighborhood for the working class to a destination for the rich. Smaller, older apartment buildings were replaced by skyscrapers; an entire block of little, individually-run shops on the east side of Broadway from 77th to 78th was replaced by a giant CVS and an equally big Marshall’s. Space was in such demand that the garage at 210 West 77th Street that for decades accommodated Hertz car rental ended up in a month-long bidding war in 2013; its market value jumped from $10 million to $55 million. By then what was once Big Nick’s would be taken over by the Mille-Feirelle Bakery Café, where a box of 21 French macarons—not macaroons, the coconut-based cookie popular during Passover, but a pastry made with different fillings—sold for $44.90.
That evolution for me came full circle on November 22 when Mary Adelman died at the age of 89 from complications of dementia, according to New York Times reporter James Barron, who began writing about Osner and the Adelmans in 1994.
The shop and the Adelmans are linked for me to the Upper West Side. Its radically changing from a service-oriented neighborhood to being more glitzy and impersonal mirrored the change in the tools of writers, from unique, endurable typewriters to the ubiquitous computers, a study in planned obsolesce.
While I write this on my Lenovo computer, the words magically appearing on the LG monitor, my original Royal is not far away, a reminder of different, gentler times. I miss those times, and those days when Big Nick allowed me to bring my own artichoke hearts for my pizza. And I miss Stanley and Mary Adelman most.
Skip Rozin is writing a book about living in and leaving New York.