In Flatbush I met the proprietor of Larry’s Pianoland in a storefront surrounded by used pianos resting on their sides on movers’ dollies, like paintings at a gallery awaiting inspection. As a couple examined a grand piano without its works, stripped of finish, its walnut inlaid with a floral pattern, the robust, balding owner unreeled a staccato line: “New strings, pins, key tops, refinished to your choice, delivered, and one home tuning. How much can you put down? Whatever you can, the rest at delivery. You’ll have a very bee-ut-i-ful pi-ano.”
In the back-room workshop the box would be brought to life to take its place in a spacious colonial-revival frame house in nearby Ditmas Park. Larry steered the next couple with a little girl to another storefront full of 200 pianos, where, in a half squat, he demonstrated. Suddenly from the stocky fingers came an angel’s whisper—phrases of Mozart, Bach, and classical improvisations. He recommended a modest spinet of Korean origin. They would think about it.
“I always feel good about a person getting a piano,” Larry told me, as business slowed. “Not just making a living, but the pleasurable days.” Larry had reason to smile. He was born in East New York in 1930, son of a house painter driven from Poland by intimations of the holocaust to come. Larry recalled: “That railroad flat was really cold; in the morning you dashed to the kitchen to light a coal stove, and then hurried to school to get real warm. It was tough. I said to myself I’d like to become a concert pianist.”
Larry had talent and won a place in a performing-arts high school in Manhattan. Eventually he realized “all the practice in the world can’t make you what you’re not.”
He became, in turn, a teacher, piano tuner, and repairman. Then, with a $75 deposit, $75 a month for rent, and four old uprights, he rented a storefront. Gradually he built a citywide reputation.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “I used to work till midnight teaching, buying old pianos, renovating them, even moving them—before I got shot.”
“I was in the store on a nice bright day like today, and two gentlemen came in like customers and pulled guns. ‘This is a holdup. Give me your wallet,’ one said.
“I said, ‘You must be kidding.’ Then it felt like a torpedo went into my stomach.”
Larry reached down and pulled up his T-shirt to expose ragged scars across his stomach. A .22 had pierced liver and intestines.
“When I got out of the hospital, I was ready to run. By then I’d moved my family out to Long Island—by the water—it’s real nice out there. Then I said I don’t feel like being run out. My door stays open, and what will be, will be.”
But Larry had been accosted again, just a week earlier, by a man with a shotgun. He foiled that robbery attempt by grabbing the weapon; it discharged into the floor. Still he’s not leaving.
“This is an ethnic city, all types of people, nice people. Look at the wonderful men who work for me—black and white. Then there are the crazies. I should hate them, but I almost sympathize. I was brought up as poor as they think they are. At least they’re warm. I remember that cold flat, and I still wear my socks to bed.”
LARRY IS PART of a retail tradition that has characterized Brooklyn since the mid-1800s. Wide avenues became shopping strips lined with two- and three-story buildings housing owners upstairs. Such storefronts still offer opportunity to would-be entrepreneurs.
Yemenis open cafés among older Arab markets and restaurants on Atlantic Avenue. Puerto Ricans create bodegas, social clubs, and Pentecostal churches. Sicilians found Italian-style carryouts. And shopping for groceries remains a lively, though time-consuming adventure as you visit your local butcher, baker, cheese seller, delicatessen, and greengrocer. But some of the business strips are failing and looking for debt consolidation programs; their boarded-up stores are used as warehouses.
Revitalizing commercial strips, encouraging shopkeepers, these have been priorities for second-term borough president Howard Golden, who as a youth worked in his mother’s deli in Flatbush. Now he presides over a Greek Revival Borough Hall whose palatial chambers are undergoing an impressive restoration.
Golden talked to me not only about Brooklyn’s attributes but also about its problems: a suspected undercount in the 1980 census, crime, unemployment, undocumented aliens, and competing plans for waterfront redevelopment. But primarily he believes “the direction of the city is Manhattan oriented, to the detriment of the citizenry. During my six years in office a dozen luxury hotels were built in Manhattan on the East Side; one was given a 21-million-dollar tax abatement. If you gave those breaks in Brooklyn, builders would come here.”
Changing that trend is unlikely, since a borough president has only one of 11 votes on the Board of Estimate, the city’s governing body. Golden shook his head. “Brooklyn’s got a lot of land—prime areas—lying fallow. Coney Island, for instance, should be a garden spot.”