I’d been sitting on the same green couch my entire life — a heavy, square sofa bed from Jennifer Convertibles my parents bought in the 80s. I’d studied for tests on it; I’d kissed boys on it; I’d eaten many a meal on it. Suffice it to say, the couch stopped being comfortable. The pillows lost their poof, the cushions were caving and no matter how hard I tried to artfully drape an old dorm tapestry across the stains, new ones always appeared.
My boyfriend’s grandma, a woman who’s been living in Carroll Gardens for 84 years, told me to take a walk to visit with her friend, Michael Sokol.
"He owns the furniture store on Columbia Street," she said. "What a nice man he is."
A furniture store down on Columbia? As someone who not only lives in the neighborhood now, but grew up here as well, I wondered how I’d come to miss this.
Either way, I’m thankful to still be discovering old neighborhood gems.
Sokol Bros. Furniture Co. is housed in a monstrous, 26,000 square-foot building located at 251 Columbia Street between President and Carroll Streets. With a sprawling red sign that probably used to light up real nice and neon, the place is hard to miss.
Drafty like an old barn or an unfinished basement, neighborhood folks have been weaving through the three long rooms that make up Sokol’s for 60 years. Couches, tables, chairs, mirrors, desks, beds, rugs, armoires — it’s a pretty solid selection. There are no salespeople. No one is tending a register. There is one man and one man only who is greeting you when you walk through the door.
Grandma was right. That Michael Sokol is a very nice man. He is by no means a flashy man, but neither is his store. Instead, he is one of the nicest storekeepers in the neighborhood. He dresses comfortably in blue jeans and sweaters, sneakers and old sweatshirts.
At a table that may or may not be for sale, we sat down one chilly night to chat.
Michael’s father and uncle, Isidore and Morris, were t he original Sokol brothers. In 1922, the Jewish teenagers moved to Brooklyn’s Borough Park from Poland and began to make their living as peddlers in Red Hook (or what we now call the Columbia Street Waterfront District).
"My father and uncle — they were in the installment business. They sold furniture, appliances, washing machines, TV sets, refrigerators, clothes, sheets, pillowcases…" His list goes on.
"And that’s how they grew. For years, they had two smaller stores — one at 203 Columbia and one, I think, across the street from where I am now," Michael remembers fuzzily.
Around 1950, the Sokol men consolidated their two stores and set up shop in the (much) bigger space at 251 Columbia. Sokol Bros. Furniture Co. was born.
Back then, Columbia Street was as busy as a thoroughfare gets.
"You had store after store running from Atlantic all the way down to Hamilton. The streets were full of people — they were here morning, noon and night. There was a movie theater, tons of army navy stores, men’s clothing shops, restaurants…"
Michael stops and struggles to remember some of the stores’ names, but then pulls them out.
"Phil and Paul’s, Columbia Menswear, Shapiro Brothers, John’s Bargain Store, Ziegler’s… all family-owned stores."
He points out that Court Street stores like Mastellone’s, Caputo’s and Monteleone’s used to be down there as well.
When the men retired in 1976, Michael took over the store.
"Did they want me to take it over? No. I’m sure my father would have liked for me to be a doctor!" he said, laughing heartily. "I was just always here, and I liked the store a lot. It was home to me."
In fact, Michael considers this area to be his true home even though he’s been living in Sheepshead Bay for most of his adult life. He lives there now with his wife, Nancy Fusco, an Italian woman he’s known since his childhood days in the store. Nancy grew up down the block from Sokol’s, in an apartment above the post office.
While business for the store certainly slowed down in the 70s, by the 80s, the neighborhood had begun to watch a number of owners sell out and leave.
"Columbia Street was desolate in the 80s," Michael says. "A lot of the buildings were burned down and aside from me and the grocery store next door, there was nothing here."
Michael was able to stay in business despite seeing Columbia Street lose its hustle and bustle.
"Actually, I kind of think it’s the big chains that go out of business more often than the independent stores," he said. "In the furniture industry, those chains just don’t seem to last. Look, a chain always needs to make a certain price point. Let’s say they need to sell something for $500. If someone comes to me, I’m going to sell it for $450 and deliver it, too."
So Michael pushes on, doing what he always did, but now all by himself.
"I used to have two salespeople here," he said. "But to be honest, I just don’t need the help."
The store now carries a medium line of home furnishings at reasonable prices.
"We used to carry a much better line, more high-end," Michael admits. "Furniture that was geared more towards the big families. They loved their dining room sets. But people don’t go for that look anymore. They come in to buy a small table or some chairs."
I ask him if people ever bargain with him, and he laughs.
"Everyone says ‘I want a discount’. They can bargain a little bit, but everything is already on sale! I basically start out cheap." He pauses. "Look, most of my customers have been somewhere else — I know this." He’s chuckling at himself, but then buttons up. "I mean, come on, I know what they know. I’m here sixty years. I gotta pay some kind of bill."
Truth be told, the busiest day in the store is Monday because everyone hits the chains on the weekends. Sokol’s is their last resort when it should have been their first stop.
Michael disappears to the back of the store. He remembers a scrapbook his father used to keep. When he comes back, the biggest binder I’ve ever seen is plopped down on the table. In it are all of the old advertisements that his father and uncle used to put out in the Daily News. Ads that take up entire pages. Hundreds and hundreds of them. It’s clear the stock has changed.
"Geez, this is from Hickory. Do you know Hickory Furniture? Look them up. Only better stores carried lines like Hickory."
Michael says this guilelessly as he carefully flips pages. I don’t think he’s sat down with this binder in a long time.
I watch his nostalgia wheels begin to spin.
"You know, my uncle only had one leg," he says without looking up. "Yeah, I always heard different stories, but the most reasonable one had to do with lumber crushing it." He looks up. "I heard that from a cousin, and not my uncle. My father said he fell out of an apple tree."
There is mail waiting for me when I return home that night. It’s a card from Michael thanking me for purchasing the couch a couple of weeks earlier. It’s little gestures like this that remind me of the kind of neighborhood we live in. Loyal. Appreciative. Personal.
Go cross that ditch and visit with Michael Sokol. He’s been there forever.
(And, for the record, I love my new couch.)
251 Columbia Street, Brooklyn NY
Photos by Max Flatow