Faerman Cash Register Co.
By Pia Peterson
In a room in the back of his store on the Bowery, Bernard Faerman sits on a stool next to a cash register made in Dayton, Ohio near the turn of the twentieth century. The cash register, an old, stately, iron-and-brass affair, has its front doors sprung open and its insides bared. Overhead, fluorescent lights hum and an old air conditioner shakes and rattles against the back wall. Bernard, in a faded Yankees cap and black workman jacket to protect against the chill in the room, makes no move to cover up the exposed parts on the old cash machine. It’s 10 a.m. on Thursday, just past opening hours, and his first customer has already come and gone, a middle-aged blonde woman picking up a repair.
Bernard, 94, and he and his son Brian have been working together in this Lower East Side store for decades. Faerman Cash Register Co., is a family business going back to 1910 when Bernard’s father and uncle started the business. They sell and repair cash registers, scales, and other machines. Father and son riff back and forth over the old machinery, they say that they used to scrap the old machines for the brass, 3 cents a pound. Now these old machines are worth up to $3,000 a piece.
“If you live long enough,” Bernard says, “what goes around comes around.”
Bernard’s father emigrated from Częstochowa, Poland in the early 1900s, leaving behind a young wife and three children. His father worked hard to reunite the family, but struggled after the beginning of World War I. “In those years,” Faerman says, “in the early 1900s, money wasn’t, you know, a man would work for maybe $3 a week.” His father was finally able to reunite with his wife and children in 1920, and Bernard was born shortly after that in 1922.
Listen to Bernard Faerman talk about meeting his late wife
Not too long ago, in a time the Faermans’ will only discern from the present as back in the day, Brian says “The Bowery was a marketplace, people came to buy.” Just down the road and across the street is the old Bowery Savings bank, now a high-end event venue, its street-level floor rented out to market vendors from Chinatown selling durians, star fruits and other Asian fare. As the area changes, the Faerman’s have had to make a lot of shrewd decisions to stay where they are and keep their family business in the family.
Brian Faerman is a friendly man in his mid-fifties in jeans and a navy NYPD t-shirt. He stands near the front of the store and has a tendency to rest his arms on the cash registers and scales that line the shelves in the way a cop might lean against the hood of his car, or a farmer fling an arm around the neck of a horse. He’s comfortable in the shop. Since his father bought the building in the sixties, Brian largely grew up there. Brian often stands up front, surveying the street through the shop window and greeting folks as they wander in with questions or repairs or just to check out the machines on display, many of them over a century old. Bernard’s place, however, is in the back of the store, the workshop, doing his daily crossword puzzle in blue ink with a large Styrofoam cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee and two chocolate frosted doughnuts on a napkin laid across the workbench next to the open register.
When Bernard bought the three-story building on the Bowery in 1965, he paid $75,000 and gave the business a permanent home. Today, real estate developers want to buy it from him for $17 million. As Manhattan real estate has become a more lucrative business, even formerly undesirable areas like the Bowery have come under the calculating eye of developers looking to turn old commercial buildings into loft or studio spaces, or tear them down all together and build high rises. The Faerman’s own two buildings, the other one they rent out to a Korean family who run a store selling lighting fixtures. The two adjacent lots make them a prime location for development, and both Faermans have remained stubborn that they won’t sell the property, even as the neighborhood develops at rates unimaginable just fifty years ago.
“At one time, when the elevated [train] structure was here, you had alcoholics here by the thousands,” Faerman recalls. When Bernard bought the three-story building on the Bowery in 1965, he paid $75,000 and gave the business a permanent home. Today, real estate developers want to buy it from him for $17 million. As Manhattan real estate has become a more lucrative business, even formerly undesirable areas like the Bowery have come under the calculating eye of developers looking to turn old commercial buildings into loft or studio spaces, or tear them down all together and build high rises. The Faerman’s own two buildings, the other one they rent out to a Korean family who run a store selling lighting fixtures. The two adjacent lots make them a prime location for development, and both Faermans have remained stubborn that they won’t sell the property, even as the neighborhood develops at rates unimaginable just fifty years ago.
As a young man, Bernard saw family members of these men coming down to retrieve lost brothers and sons. He never felt that the men who hung around the elevated tracks in worn and dirty clothing were dangerous.
“They might have had an accident in a fight amongst each other,” he says, “they might have pushed one another through a window, but they were not destructive.”
These men, and the flophouses that accommodated them, defined the Bowery just as much as the old commercial buildings did. The destruction of the Bowery would come not from a slow decline but by a swift and merciless trend of gentrification and high rises.
By the 1960s and 70s, many of the commercial buildings in the area had closed and were abandoned, or had artists renting out whole floors as studio spaces for a few hundred dollars a month. Many people had took advantage of this by moving in, and building toilets, kitchens, and walls within the spaces, often in secret, to make them more habitable on a starving artist’s budget. People paid as little as $300 for a 2,500 square foot loft in some cases, such as at 156 Bowery, which Bernard had bought in the sixties for $51,200.
In 1982, the city passed the New York City Loft Law to oversee the conversion of factory or commercial spaces to be converted and renovated for use as safe housing for families and single dwellers. With the passing of the Loft Law and the introduction of these spaces as Interim Multiple Dwellings (IMD), the building owners became landlords to these people as well. Bernard recalls that at one time there were thousands of these IMD buildings in the city. In 1983 there were 914 registered buildings, the number had dropped to 304 by 2011.
By this point, Bernard and his wife had built up the cash register business and bought two other buildings in the area, including 156 Bowery and the building next door to the Cash Register Co., 155 Bowery. In accordance with the law, they installed fire escapes, sprinkler systems, bathrooms, kitchens, hot water heaters and other amenities in 156 Bowery to bring it up to code. Eventually disagreements with the artists in residence in the building on the Bowery led Bernard to sell it rather than fight difficult tenants. Brian says that despite continuing destructive and negative behavior from the tenants living as artists in the building, the law always sided with the tenant.
“The tenant is being crucified all the time,” Bernard adds, “the landlord is the monster.”
In 1999, Bernard sold the 156 Bowery building for $1.5 million. In one generation the Faerman’s life changed, and with it, the Bowery landscape. Brian explains that the building is worth over $6 million on today’s market.
They’ve lost neighbors and friends out of the area over the years, and Brian says he’s suspicious of all of these vacant properties with ‘For Rent’ signs in the windows that seem to go for years without finding tenants. He estimates that these places are, like his father, paying $30-50,000 in real estate taxes a year, and yet the storefront sits empty.
“You gotta have insurance, you’re still paying for the lights,” Brian says.
He suspects a big conglomerate or LLC who is waiting it out and trying to buy up adjacent properties and then build a high rise.
“You see the buildings being built down here,” he points out.
The older tenement and commercial buildings in the Lower East Side are preserved now only in black and white photographs, laminated and kept by those who, like the Faermans, remember the neighborhood in different times. The original tenants of these buildings have long scattered. The Faerman’s have lost touch with folks whom they shared the block with for the better part of a century, such as the now-closed King Glass, which opened in 1933 and shuttered in 2012. Bernard says that today they are the next to last of five cash register places who were open on the Bowery.
They say they’ll never leave.