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One New Yorker's Goodbyes to Broadway Panhandler

"I think you mean Le Creuset, and I'd love to show it to you," a bright-eyed saleswoman said to me during my first trip to Broadway Panhandler many moons ago. She scurried to the cast iron cookery and began singing the praises of a Dutch oven. During her explanation, the shade of my mortified face was much like the French brand's signature cherry red. I had stampeded into the 8th Street shop declaring my first notable purchase as an adult would be a "Lee Croissant" pan.

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Unlike so many other boutiques in Manhattan, the staff at Broadway Panhandler was never pretentious. Their wares were not better than what you had in your kitchen — even though they were much better — and no customer would be shamed for wanting to buy something from Lee Croissant. With the charm of a general store, a selection envied by professional chefs, and damn good prices, Broadway Panhandler was quintessential old New York, founded in 1976 by Norman Kornbleuth.

The first sign of trouble for Broadway Panhandler was not a "For Rent" sign or a new landlord, but a sign advertising a big pre-holiday sale in October. The sign was stamped with a kiss of retail death: "G.A. Wright."

Based in Colorado, G.A. Wright bills itself as an expert in "retail sales promotion" and "retail exit strategies." The company can help a retailer sell out dead stock with a blockbuster sale, or help plan a closing entirely. Its website promises to show retailers "how to keep employees as long as you need them" and "how to sell inventory out to the bare walls."

Shoppers know that they're in the presence of a G.A. Wright-organized liquidation when a store is suddenly enveloped in green and pink signs advertising a "Huge sale!" and "Fantastic prizes!" High-end electronics are brought in as rewards for big spenders. Mailers are sent to neighbors and former customers, promising exclusive entry to a sale before the general public.

Walking through the Panhandler during the exit strategy sale was like trying to hang out with a friend who had moved away — there was an amicability, but the intimacy was gone. Next to an antique Coca Cola ice box (broken, but beautiful décor), a table was strewn with marketing letters and staffers I didn't recognize. Sale prices were marked with foreign neon orange tags. A big screen television was propped up as a prize next to a set of copper pans I'd been eyeing for years and examined whenever I shopped there, material for a fantasy about a sprawling country style kitchen I'll probably never own.

With the charm of a general store, a selection envied by professional chefs, and damn good prices, Broadway Panhandler was quintessential old New York.

Too upset to look for deals, I grilled the staff members I recognized: "Why are you closing? Is it the rent? Who is the landlord? How can we help?" I formulated crowdfunding ideas. I wrote letters to an imaginary real estate developer in my head. Without making eye contact, every employee denied the store was closing. It wasn't until months later, in late January, that Kornbleuth admitted it was over.

But there is no evil landlord. The rent isn't quadrupling. Kornbleuth is retiring, a natural decision at the age of 72. His wife has health issues, his children have no interest in operating the store, and, initially, no one wanted to buy the place. Three serious offers have been made since he announced the closing, but if a deal can't be reached, the Panhandler will close up shop in mid-March.

When a store dies of natural causes, there's a very long funeral, a string of mid-shopping eulogies and saved receipts in lieu of remembrance cards. Wanting to pay my own respects, I waited as several customers stopped Kornbleuth to mourn the loss of the shop they said they had been patrons of for decades.

"It's mostly a happy closing because it is my choice," Kornbleuth told me after he chatted with them. "As an owner, it's a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day occupation...It's time for me to spend more time in the pursuit of happiness through my family."

With Kornbleuth's blessing, I wandered into what was left of the Le Creuset. With Broadway Panhandler's future outside of my control, I found solace in a deeply discounted frying pan.

Broadway Panhandler

65 E 8th Street, New York, NY 10003 (212) 966-3434 Visit Website