Norma Bartol: A special part of Greenwich history

Photo of Norma Bartol

Every once in a while, something takes place that, as far as I am concerned, is just marvelous. I could not get to the extraordinary opening of the Greenwich Historical Society’s new renovation last fall. Recently I was taken on a fabulous trip to view the new campus, and it is truly an amazing piece of work.

I have always enjoyed the Bush-Holley House and environs, as it is a true history of our town. However, I want to tell you about something I found on the bookshelf at the historical society, “An American Odyssey, the Jewish Experience in Greenwich,” by Ann Meyerson, guest curator and author.

The first settlers arrived in New Amsterdam, as the Dutch colony was called then and which is now New York City. The Dutch West India Co. said the Jews could stay as long as they did not “become a burden on the community.” Then New York was founded as a multireligion colony, a principle the English maintained after they conquered the city from the Dutch.

Some of the first Jewish families who moved to Greenwich were merchants who came to open stores. In the book, Jennie Marks Levine recalls in 1974 how her father founded the Marks Brothers Newspaper business in Greenwich in 1907. “There was this business in Greenwich for sale… He knew nothing about it, but he bought the newspaper business and from then on, you know, if a Jewish person has a little business, they get a bigger one. So we opened up a stationery store. … They all came in and bought retail shops and made a living out of it.”

Others who started businesses in town included I. J. Weiss, Mayer Cohen, Michael Taylor, Barney Tunick and Mayer Bennett — all as far back as the first decade of the 20th century.

Each fall as school was about to start, one of my favorite things to do was to purchase new shoes. Of course, the favorite shoe store was the place to go, and hopefully say hello to the owner, Mr. Weiss. The delightful gentleman was born in Hungary, and he came to East Port Chester, where he had an uncle. Then in 1906, with a brother-in-law, he opened my favorite shoe store, at 92 Greenwich Ave., which stayed in business for 91 years. Believe it or not, they used to stay open until 11 at night to help those who lived in the backcountry.

Mr. Weiss was about 24 when he started out, peddling fruits and vegetables by horse and wagon. What an amazing way to start one of the most successful Greenwich Avenue businesses.

Then there was the Marks family, who had a well-known stationery store at the top of Greenwich Avenue. That is where one picked up the newspaper on the way to the train. The daughter of Philip and Sophia, Jennie was the first Jewish child born in Greenwich in 1895. In 1904, Philip purchased a newspaper route in Greenwich, and like others, he became sole owner of Marks Brothers Newspapers, a stationery store.

I enjoyed Jennie Levine’s comment in 1974, “I remember my father on a Sunday morning getting up at 2 in the morning going to the station and getting the papers, and delivering them in Greenwich, and then came home at 12, changed horses and went out to Round Hill. He used to say the horse ‘knew when to stop to deliver a paper, but a car never knew.’”

I would have liked to have known that gentleman.

Thank you for an “An American Odyssey, the Jewish Experience in Greenwich” and to Debra Mecky, the executive director, for a fascinating tour of the new work by the amazing people at the Historical Society.

Greenwich native Norma Bartol, a former Greenwich Time reporter and columnist, lives in the backcountry.