Written by Annie Correal
A bell rang as a man came through the door, hands deep in his pockets. Steve Hecht looked up.
It was a clean-out guy he knows. He stops in when he finds something Hecht might like to buy. This time it was a dress form, a big one.
“You want a size 20?” the man asked. It was nearby, he said.
“Nope,” said Hecht, crossing thick arms over a suede apron. “It’s a little too much woman for me.”
As the man left, Hecht said, “I have three or four 20s. You have to have your limits.”
Hecht has a lot of old dress forms in his meticulously crammed storefront on West 38th Street in what is rapidly becoming the former garment district.
He also has nude photos and ticket stubs from Show World, the shuttered Times Square sex emporium, even an old type cutter from the days when The New York Times printed its papers on 43rd Street.
He has an antique lightning rod from a shirt company in Hell’s Kitchen, oil cans found when the old Pennsylvania Station was being dismantled. The bell on the front door once rang in a local boxing ring.
Hecht, 60, is the third-generation owner of Hecht Sewing Machine and Motor Co., a more-than-century-old sewing-machine repair shop that has also become, as the neighborhood’s garment factories and small businesses have died off, a repository of old New York.
“We are the undertakers,” Hecht said.
For years, the collection that quietly amassed in the shop — as the neighborhood was transformed — has remained all but secret, a tip passed selectively from one artist to another.
Robert Frank, the photographer, used to scour the shop for early colorized photographs and lead figurines, according to Hecht, and when friends asked where to get him a gift, he sent them there. James Gandolfini, the actor known for his role as Tony Soprano, shopped at Hecht for tchotchkes and collectibles for his driver, his doorman and Matt Damon.
More recently, hip-hop luminaries have been directed there by the clerks of Nepenthes New York, an unmarked Japanese fashion boutique across the street that deals in glittering track pants and cashmere suits.
Tourists do not fare as well. Most are dispatched before their eyes have even adjusted to the light. Hecht does not permit photography, or accept credit cards. A heavy chain divides the shop.
“The tourist chain,” Hecht says. “It preserves my sanity.”
Most things in the shop are not for sale anyway. Hecht might make an exception for an obsessive collector of, say, thimbles or fountain pens or trench art from World War I, or for a star he recognizes who comes over from Nepenthes: “J. Lo,” said Hecht, referring to Jennifer Lopez, for example. “Fellow Bronx girl.”
But as he tells tourists daily, this is not an antique store — it is a sewing-machine repair shop.
You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Along with oil-streaked machines and cabinets of parts, Hecht — and his parents and grandparents before him — also filled the shop with 19th-century maritime ephemera (anchors, glass buoys and hand-woven hemp fenders), painted signs, neon signs, animal pelts and taxidermy, pinups and framed photos of New Yorkers, once illustrious, perhaps — and more.
From the time he was a child, he said, there were things you would not expect to find in such a place. They mainly served practical purposes: a glass porthole from a Navy ship with a thick lip became a place to put screws while making repairs; a mammoth bank safe became the workbench.
Hecht expanded the collection — significantly — yet he still relies on the sewing-machine business, which has enough clients, he said, ranging from the Metropolitan Opera to seamstresses in Queens, that he does not need to sell his treasures to pay the rent, though he does lease and sell items to prop stylists for television and film.
On a recent afternoon, a would-be customer touched the glass of a locked case containing pocketknives — not for sale!— and gazed wistfully at one. “It’s little and adorable,” she said. “You can get away with murder with it.”
Hecht looks small from the street. The storefront is narrow, and its yellow sign, faded by time and pigeon slurry, is easy to miss amid a busy pizzeria, the Consulate General of Guyana and an upscale trattoria.
Inside, though, the shop stretches the length of two subway cars, and in places it is packed nearly to the ceiling. Hecht can be found there five days a week, crouched at the workbench, where he fixes sewing machines for the likes of Broadway costumers and the alteration departments of big retail stores, or in what he calls the front office, a wooden booth about the size of a ticket taker’s at the cinema.
Founded by Morris Hecht, Hecht’s Austrian-born grandfather, the business moved from a nearby street to its present quarters around 1920, and actually predates the tall Shampan Building that rises above it, said Hecht. “They built around us,” he said.
In the cavernous old shop, bundles of scissors dangle from columns like chili peppers at a Mexican market. Bushels of whisk brooms, made of straw and horsehair and boar hair, lie on shelves. Large glass bulbs, now containing clippings of a pothos plant, hang here and there.
“Fire grenades,” Hecht said. They once contained a fire-extinguishing liquid and could be lobbed at flames. These items were collected, mainly by Hecht himself, from hundreds of garment district factories.
It began in the 1970s, while he was still in high school, when industry in the neighborhood began to wind down. “That was when the big manufacturers that went in after World War II retired, when there was the downturn,” he said.
“Factories were closing and people were retiring to Arizona and Florida. You’d go up there and the cigar would still be in the crystal ashtray,” he said.
“People wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and the picking shows that people picked up something like this” — Hecht grabbed the nearest item, a candlestick — “and said, ‘This could be worth thousands.’”
The Hechts bought the equipment, and took whatever else was left behind in the factory lofts, sometimes for a small price. “Usually you were doing them a favor,” Hecht said. “It had to be broom-clean.”
Before long, pickers and pushers — rack-pushing garment workers — learned of Hecht’s penchant for collecting, and they began to come to him, bringing the flotsam of the garment district and beyond.
Hecht particularly loves mysteries, salvaged items he had to identify, before Google, using encyclopedias. Extracting from a nook a steel instrument with a curved shaft and a sharp tip, he announced: “Cheese bore. You get a 12-inch read on the texture of the cheese. You get a perfect plug of cheese. It’s a pretty important item! How could you leave that behind?”
His clientele of dressmakers and milliners has by now expanded to include antique dealers, prop stylists, and commercial photographers (including for The New York Times Magazine). The shop has served as the backdrop to a murder scene on TV, though Hecht declines to name the show.
Yet the secret to the shop’s longevity remains the same. “A very simple machine, and a very troublesome one,” said Hecht, patting a sewing machine on a recent afternoon.
He has a few mechanics on staff but handles many jobs himself, and that day, he had received a vintage Elna carried in by an art director in her 20s, Shelby Tuper.
Tuper is something of a regular, hunting for pieces for her freelance gigs, although that day she was getting the machine repaired for a company she was working for.
As Hecht opened the lid of the Elna, she stepped in chunky sneakers over the tourist chain and disappeared.
When she returned, she was holding a velvet purse with a silver clasp, a painted wooden box, a cigarette case the size of her palm. She looked at Hecht hopefully.
“There are a bunch of them back there,” she said of the cigarette compact. “Some had … not so exciting things inside.”
“The lock of hair?” said Hecht.
“This,” she said of the shop, “is my secret jewel.”