Post written by Mark Daly, Reference Intern, May 2013
My reference internship at the Othmer Library has been a highlight of my library school education. I have enjoyed the opportunity to pick up new skills, meet researchers of all types, and — not least — learn more about my home borough. One subject I wish I’d spent more time investigating is the history of commercial enterprise in Brooklyn. When I see stories in the news about the borough’s funky tech start-ups and co-working spaces, I begin to wonder what the library’s collections can tell us about the businesses of yesteryear.
As part of my internship, I compiled a list of printed resources to add to the library’s Coney Island and Gravesend research subject guide. I discovered many good books on the shelves that told a fascinating story — of the rise, decline and recent revival of the leisure industry at Coney Island. Coney Island’s history as a summer destination goes back earlier, to when some of the country’s earliest resort hotels were built near the beach, and some of Kings County’s first light rail lines were extended to the peninsula.
The library has resources that cover each of these earlier eras. One book, Good Old Coney Island, by Edo McCullough, delights in recounting the colorful stories of the early Coney Island entrepreneurs, and the business and political machinations they resorted to in pursuing their grand dreams. It’s a natural subject for the author, a nephew of George C. Tilyou, the legendary Coney Island showman. The book’s subtitle describes its subject better than I ever could: “The Most Rambunctious, Scandalous, Rapscallion, Splendiferous, Pugnacious, Spectacular, Illustrious, Prodigious, Frolicsome Island on Earth.”
At the other end of Brooklyn is downtown’s Fulton Mall, an outdoor commercial center with its own unique style. One longtime anchor of the district is the Macy’s department store at 422 Fulton Street. Longtime residents of the borough will recall that the cast-iron building is the former home of Abraham and Straus department store, known as A&S. Co-founded by Abraham Abraham just after the Civil War, Abraham and Straus was a Brooklyn institution for 130 years, until its rebranding by Macy’s parent company in 1995. The Othmer Library has an archival collection of Abraham and Straus materials from the company’s centennial celebration in February 1965.While researching a reference question recently, I came across an old A&S press release in the collection that recounted a critical moment in the history of the business — and ultimately of Brooklyn. The February 16, 1965 press release, titled “Moments of Courage: The A&S Moves Toward Greatness” dramatizes a day in 1883 when Mr. Abraham was pondering his options for expanding his dry-goods store from its location near the bustling ferry to Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge was about to open, and he saw that it would forever change things:
Accurately, he foresaw that easy transportation over the bridge, independent of weather which often made the ferries unreliable, should bring more people to live in Brooklyn. Ferry traffic should diminish. He walked half a mile up Fulton Street, past Borough Hall, to what was then the outskirts of town and studied the big-ironed structure at 422. It was too big for its time, and had degenerated into tenancy by small cheap shops. Fulton Street beyond it to Flatbush “looked like a western mining town and beyond Flatbush was country.
A separate press release notes that “contrary to all advice,” Abraham bought 422 Fulton. At 145,000 square feet of space, it was fully six times bigger than his current store. Luckily for Abraham, his gamble paid off; the larger store allowed the business to expand its inventory. It also began to show off the larger space with grand window displays, elegant showrooms, in-store restaurants, and other elements of showmanship (not that different from Coney Island, in a way). Abraham & Straus became a destination for shoppers from either side of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the company remains a fond memory for many Brooklynites today.
The story of A&S, and of Coney Island, shows that the dreams of Brooklyn’s business builders can profoundly shape the lives of its residents. It’s a history that deserves to be told. How many other entrepreneurs have walked in Abraham Abraham’s footsteps, faced such challenges, felt such inspiration, made such fateful decisions? Who, on the streets of Williamsburg or Coney Island, is taking such walks today?