Harsh words, compassionate souls
However, Nathan and Sally saw to it that those in need were taken care of. Scores of customers today recall Sally's gestures of generosity; despite his disposition, customers also recount stories of Nathan's charity. As referenced in the exhibit video, he donated tons of clothing and often reduced prices for those in need.
If Nathan's self-assigned job was to harry and haggle, Sally's was to feed and to comfort. To this day, she greets customers with a kind word and trays of homemade goodies, coffee and tea. She has an uncanny ability to remember details from conversations with shoppers. Tell her about your sister in New York; return six months later and she'll greet you warmly and ask, "How's your sister, the one in New York?" In a way, her customers became her extended family and hercommunity.
Secrets of Success
Therein lies the truth of Birke's, the reason why it succeeded against all odds. One way or another, shoppers got something there they didn't get at other stores. If you survived Nathan's test, you were treated to quality merchandise at reasonable prices and alterations and assistance from Filomena Espinola, an employee for over twenty years, as well as coffee from Sally.
Everyone shopped at Birke's, from the wealthy lawyer to the impoverished, former mill worker, and they remember the clothes, often better than the events for which they were purchased. In great detail, customers will tell you about their little Rothschild coat with matching leggings and hat, or the boy's suit with its brass buttons, bought for Easter thirty years ago and later passed down to two brothers before being sent on to a favorite cousin. "Birke's clothes wore like iron."
"Browsing Through Birke's" is meant as a reminder of not only Nathan and Sally's hard work, sorrows and legacies, but also as a celebration of the immigrant experience.
Reflect on clothing of the past, the workmanship and attention to detail that is so hard to find nowadays. Take in the different panels of the exhibit, the memories and truths of the past they reveal. Check out the customer panel, the "rules" on getting in, the comments about mannequins with no hands, and Nathan making Andrew Dice Clay seem like a choir boy. Each panel contains a piece of the Birke's story, including a sometimes discordant reminder of the Holocaust framed in black; but remember, the Holocaust is the loom on which Birke's was spun.
Take your time. Feel free to browse.