Niche Market | The Fragile Art Behind Bernie's Glass
Monday, February 28, 2011
New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every Wednesday, Niche Market will take a peek inside a different specialty store and showcase the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity. Slideshow below.
1554 Fulton Street
Brooklyn, NY 11213
Fragile but fundamental to modern living, glass is all around us -- from the city's shimmering skyscrapers to the neat rows of windows facing out of squat tenement buildings. Bernie Gross, 47, is a glazier who inherited his Bed-Stuy glass business from his father. He cuts, sets, etches and sells all sizes of glass for windows, table tops, store fronts, skylights and more.
His real name is Jerome. But everyone in the neighborhood knows him as Bernie, which was his dad's name. Bernie took over the family business and still uses his father’s tools. He's quick to jump to the aid of locals who phone him when they have a broken window, personally driving to them to replace the glass in his navy blue jumpsuit.
The shop is filled with gleaming decorative glass with Greek designs and etchings of Dr. Martin Luther King and Obama. Dotted throughout the workshop are signature signs emblazoned with messages about morality and philosophies on life authored by Bernie himself: "Zero Failed Missions," "Everything is Something."
The shop contains two very large cutting tables, racks (built by Bernie’s father and uncle) containing different thicknesses and varieties of glass: clear, wire frame, frosted, safety, florentine (popular in the neighborhood’s brownstones) stained, and many kinds of mirror. He also sells glass for security purposes: bullet resistant and convex mirrors. Convex mirrors? Bernie explains: “You know, in the corner, the old fashioned thing, before we had cameras? A simple technology works all the time.”
How did this business start?
It was my father’s business, and my father and my uncle George worked together here for many years. They needed something to do and be with after the war, WWII. My father came here after the war from Ukraine, and first he had a little shop just down the block, but we’ve always been on Fulton street. We’ve had it in the family for 56 years.
My grandfather was a glazier in the Ukraine. It was a different world back then. You didn’t change much glass. You took a Band-Aid and put it on the hole and glued the little crack. These were very poor people of simple means, but glass has always been in our family -- even my uncle Benny on my mom’s side was a glazier.
How did you learn the trade?
I was born into it. From the age of 7 he makes me work with him: 'Come with me we gotta go look at something. Come with me we gotta go do something. You hold that. Do this.' So from a very young age I worked with my father. But I consider the year of '77 my starting year because that was a bad year for everybody in Brooklyn. We had the blackout. He made me stay here everyday while he'd actually sleep on the table cause he had to stay here at night to make sure the place wouldn’t be abused. So I stayed here for three days and I figured, three days in a row, I started work.
My father still lives here somehow. He’s still here, everywhere. Every time I smell something, the linseed oil putty. 'Til I was 7-years old I didn’t know money smelled like money, I thought it smelled like putty. Cause it would come from his hand, he’d fix a window, the putty was on it. There was the putty!
So what do you sell here?
We do a lot of repairs for windows. People can either bring the windows in or have outside service. We fix the glass. We fix the springs. We fix the locks. We install new windows. We can make the simple window, which I like using aluminum for because it’s a substantial material, or we can do a soundproof burglar-resistant window. I have wood windows. I have wood sash. I have store front, shower doors, tabletops -- I even still do picture frames because my dad did. Anything in glass, stained glass, sand blasting, anything you need. Glass is glass.
What’s your business philosophy?
Just try to make people happy so I can get paid. Everything is something — even the way you touch it. The way it lays on the wall. The way it sits in a groove. Glasses easily break. Not everyone can put a glass in that won’t break three weeks later, a month later, two months later. I just had a call from a lady this morning. I must have put a mirror up for her 20 years ago. She wants to move it because she’s going out of state. She says, 'Can I move it?' I says, ‘Yes, I can, but if I put it up with glue, it was up for 20 years, it can stay up for another 20. It’s not a problem.' So she might as well just leave it there for the next tenant and just let them enjoy it.
Who are your clients?
Well, we pretty much stay local. I like my own fishing pond. I stay in Bed-Stuy. I stay in Clinton Hill. I go downtown. But I go all over the place. I go to the city. I go out to Long Island, the truck has round wheels. We go everywhere.
What’s the difference between glass and mirror?
Well mirror -- mirror is a very good piece of glass that has very little imperfections. Because you can’t use a piece of glass that has a seed in it, or a flake or a scratch because it will show up in the silver. Silvering is when you take very good glass and you put different coatings on it. First you put silver. Then you put nickel. Then you put copper. Then you’ll put a polyglaze on it. And it all protects the silver today. Years ago they used to put silver and just a paint and they would call it a mirror, but today it’s a process of high quality goods.
Is there much competition?
I’m not in competition, that’s just the man down the block. I’m not in a race. There are a lot of people in this business, but I don’t consider them my competition. They’re not Bernie.
Why are you knocking on the glass that customer brought in?
I was listening to the glass. Annealed glass, regular glass, has a certain sound. Tempered glass can’t be cut because it’s gone into an oven to be tempered, and it can’t change size or form at that point. You can’t change it. But regular glass you can always score and open. Tempered is when you take a piece of glass and you put it into an oven. You heat it up to great temperatures — 1600 degrees. When it comes out of the oven and you quench it quickly, it now has a different molecular structure and it’s like the side windows on your car when it breaks it crumbles into little pieces. With regular glass, which is annealed glass, it breaks into shards and large pieces. [knocking on glass] Tempered glass has a different sound, it’s more of a twang.