New York Box: A Look Into The LES Specialty Store
Going outside of the box and into the box-store at a Lower Manhattan cardboard sanctuary.
By Mason Leib
Mark Bernstein wakes up each morning, prays for one full hour, and commutes from his home in Queens to a small storefront on the Lower East Side of Manhattan around 11am. New York Box, a tiny rectangular shaped unit on Ludlow Street, is packed floor to ceiling with cardboard, bubble wrap and packaging tape. Bernstein, and his father before him, sells cardboard boxes.
He works from a wooden desk in the far corner of the shop, marooned behind several piles of flattened cardboard. He is meticulous in his record keeping, indicated by about a dozen post-it notes plastered on the wall to his right. He quotes a fourth-century Jewish proverb that says the first question you’re asked in the afterlife is if you were honest in business.
“I have no doubt for me the answer for me is yes,” he says. “To the penny.” Lack of honesty, according to Mark, is a lack of faith in God.
He returns home to his wife in the evening, where he eats his first and only meal of the day. (He confesses to sometimes taking an emergency apple to work)
Bernstein smirks at the idea that 70 years is an impressive amount of time to keep a small business running. “My father had a chunk of it, and I had a chunk of it,” he suggests, as if to temper the narrative that a seven-decade old cardboard box shop is anything extraordinary.
Speaking of his father, he remembers being a child in the 60’s and overhearing conversations about the Holocaust thinking it was ancient history, though it had only been 20 years. “As you get older, 20 years is nothing. 70 years is just a little less nothing.” Three and a half times more nothing, to be exact.
The stories Bernstein overheard just 60 nothing years ago, were firsthand accounts. His father, Henry, a captured infantryman in the Polish army met his mother Lisl, an Austrian-born Jew, at Ferramonti, an Italian concentration camp. Henry and Lisl fell in love and tied the knot at Ferramonti, in the midst of the deadliest genocide in human history.
The Bernstein family’s 73-year old company sits near Grand and Ludlow in the Lower East Side. It’s outlived the Cold War, Vietnam War, 14 U.S. presidencies, and the Mullet.
In accounting for his shop’s success, Bernstein can’t help but lament all that’s lost. “A lot of people went out of business because the whole economy has changed,” he said. “Entire industries no longer exist here.” He explains the domino effect of closures that’s decimated much of his industry: A sweater shop closes, thus harming the box, tape and stretch wrap companies that the sweaters are packaged in.
After the war, Henry, Lisl and their newborn, Ruth, settled in Rome. One day Ruth crossed herself in an act of worship to Christ, a move she learned from their Italian maid. “That’s it!” said Henry. Henry was enticed by the lure of post-war American immigration but the crossing was “the straw that broke the camel's back,” according to Mark.
The trio boarded the Neptunia leaving Naples on October 16th, 1950 and arriving in New York two weeks later on October 30th, 1950, four decades to the day before Henry would pass away.
Mark attributes New York Box’s longevity to chance and timing. His father was part of a large community of Jewish store owners in the Lower East Side who’s shops died with their owner in the late ‘90s. Unlike many of his neighbors, as the elder Bernstein aged, he had a son in his late ‘20s. Mark had an interest in keeping the company alive, and so, a family business was born.
The shop is one of the last remaining vestiges of a neighborhood lost to history. For much of the 20th century, the Lower East Side was the epicenter of the American Jewish world. Bernstein, who dawns a yarmulke, says there was a time where hundreds of synagogues lined the streets. Now, “Unfortunately, we could hardly get a minion.”
The clientele changed too.
A man enters the store and asks for tall boxes to hang clothes in. Bernstein doesn’t miss a beat, hopping up from his chair and grabbing a roughly 6’ X 4’ box. He meets the man outside where cash changes hands.
“Recently, in the last 10 years we’ve had more of a shift towards the retail end,” says Bernstein, “Where somebody could walk in just like the gentleman that just did and just buy a box.”
They were primarily a wholesale business until the competition in that space loomed too large. Amazon, he explains, can rent out a warehouse in Oklahoma for the price of a closet in New York. He catches himself before sounding too grim, “But we try,” he says softly. “We try.”
New York Box is a story of trying- of perseverance. It’s founders persevered war and genocide to find love and start a family. In America, the shop outlasted the competition of the 20th century and continues to survive in the age of larger than life monopolies.
Bernstein appreciates what cardboard boxes have done for his life, but doesn’t see his shop as a holy artifact and testament to his legacy. The family that it supported is the true fruit of its perseverance. He beams when talking about his family. He has six children, none of whom have serious interest in taking over the company.
The Bernsteins are direct descendants of Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk, a founder of the modern Hasidic movement. Mark changed all of his family members' passports to Weisblum in order to keep the lineage name. He is more concerned with passing on the Weisblum name than the family business.
The fourth-century proverb that Mark credits his business honesty to says that when a man’s day of judgment comes he is asked seven questions. Among them: “Did you deal honestly in business? Did you set times to study the Torah? Did you produce a legacy?”
When contemplating the mortality of his business he remembers the early days of COVID. He visited his aging mother, Holocaust survivor, Lisl. They would chat through a screen door, until spring brought enough warmth to sit on the porch together. These are the moments, embracing the company of a family that has persevered, which Mark will enjoy when New York Box runs its course.