Since 2012, I’ve had to do freelance work, as the print business has suffered, as well as copy editing and proofreading. Most companies that produced printed material used to keep a staff of editors and proofreaders on premises and before the mid-1980s or so, desks and chairs were set up in a small room in the back of these various shops, and the desks usually had ashtrays. The rooms where actual type was set and ran off on printers were of course kept clear of particulate matter, and were kept as cold even in winter—the chemicals used in the printing process didn’t like warm air at all.
Today a great deal of printed material is barely readable because spelling, grammatical and syntactical errors are uncorrected. Companies determined that not a lot of money was lost because of printing errors, and spell checking software, while not nearly as good as a human, don’t require payment and health benefits.
I’ve worked in over a dozen buildings. Many still stand today, but a surprising number of them have been repurposed. I’ll show you a few of them in this post.
Municipal Photo Studio, Chanin Building, 105 Court St. at Schermerhorn, 5/78–9/78
The first paying job I had was in a passport photo studio on the ground floor of Brooklyn’s Chanin Building, not to be confused with the much larger, 56-story skyscraper on Lexington Ave. near Grand Central Terminal. I did simple tasks here, such as developing photos in a darkroom and sweeping floors. The money, as with my next job at the Brooklyn Business Library, went toward helping with college tuition and lunch. The studio occupied the space where the nails joint is now.
The row of buildings across Court St. was completely razed in the 1990s to make way for an ugly entertainment complex including a movie theater and a Barnes & Noble bookstore, so the view I had exiting and entering is completely different from what it was in 1978. Passport photos are now largely done at places like CVS.
Lexigraphics, 150 5th Ave. near Madison Square, 2/81–11/81
I didn’t realize it at the time, since the ground floor had been corrupted and “modernized” while I was working there, but 150 5th Ave. at W. 20th St. is the most architecturally arresting building where I’ve worked. The Romanesque Revival masterpiece was designed by architect Edward H. Kendall and constructed from 1888-1890 for the Methodist Book Concern and Missionary Society. At the time, this stretch of 5th Ave. was filled with religious publishing companies, and it would continue to harbor publishing for over a century.
The Methodist Book Concern turned out religious tomes and periodicals such as The Christian Advocate and Sunday School Journal. After a few decades, the MBC moved to Nashville in 1939, but maintained a retail office at 150 5th until 1962. The three top floors had been added in 1909, providing medieval-style battlements and the trigram MBC. The building later was home to a laundry workers’ union health center and Ideax, a camera manufacturer. The original ground floor designs had been replaced with a boxier look by the time I arrived in early 1981 at a surviving printing firm, Lexigraphics. Thankfully, a 2001 reconstruction restored them.
I remember little of Lexigraphics, except that the work was mostly textbooks. We read from proofs on holed computer paper. Irv Roberts, the owner, was kindly and one day, during a heat wave, he showed up with a chocolate ice cream bar for everyone. It was a fairly small office. Irv passed away in November 2018.
Photo-Lettering, Summit Financial, 216 East 45th St. (between 2nd and 3rd Aves.), Kips Bay, 3/82–5/88; 4-5/19
I had a love of type before working at Photo-Lettering, but working at the city’s #1 type shop and primary source for advertising type took things to another level. Just about all my time at the institution, founded in 1936 by Harold Horman and Ed Rondthaler, was spent overnights. For example, the latest I ever left one night was one p.m.—after about 19 hours of work.
I had a blast working at what was one of the world capitals of type—thousands of fonts were on sale and some of the giants in the business such as Ed Benguiat worked there. PL’s clients were the premier ad firms of its day such as J. Walter Thompson, Ogilvy and Mather, Doyle Dane Bernbach. Type for ads was prepared overnights so it could be delivered to the ad companies early the following day.
Photo-Lettering also gave rise to the Electrographic Corporation and the greatest printing trade magazine, U&lc, a must for type buffs everywhere. I still have Photo-Lettering sample books, as well as Ed Rondthaler’s bio, Life With Letters. Well after retirement, Ed found a new career as a TV pitchman, appearing in commercials for Pearle eye care, among others.
Setting type now consists of pressing a few buttons, but back then, crews of people “specked” type by measuring the space where the ad copy would appear, and then using gauges to estimate the point size and leading of the type to be set to fill it.
I left in May 1988 as I wanted more responsibilities management wasn’t willing to provide, and I also wanted to go somewhere with daytime hours. In those days, job seeking was much different— you could dial a number in the newspaper and get an interview the same week.
I had a freelance assignment at Summit Financial in the same building looking over very dry financial statements in the spring of 2018, an all-night shift between midnight and eight a.m.—I had come full circle and wound up at the same place.
Publishers Clearing House, 382 Channel Drive, Port Washington, NY, 7/92–11/99 and 2/06–3/11
Harold Mertz founded Publishers Clearing House in his basement in Sands Point, NY in 1953 as a magazine subscription service. It was a success almost immediately and grew exponentially, acquiring an office building on Main St. in Port Washington in the early-1960s and later, building a campus at the end of Channel Dr. in what was originally a sand pit in 1967. The company, which since added general merchandise to its offerings, began its famous sweepstakes in 1967 and has outlasted all its competitors.
I arrived here by waking up on the subway one Sunday and, finding a Newsday on the bench beside me, opened it to the classifieds and dialed the number PCH placed in an ad for proofreaders. A few weeks later, I was hired. This was probably my most rewarding work experience, since I was permitted to work in a number of departments. When the studio heard I had studied QuarkXPress, Photoshop and Illustrator, I was recruited; and after writing several pieces for the company newsletter I was then asked to move over to copywriting.
I was laid off along with 400 others in 1999, but in early 2006 was rehired as a proofreader. Things had rigidified somewhat at PCH and I wasn’t allowed to shift between departments as before. My first stint, however, was a lot of fun for me, as well as the suburban setting. PCH moved to a corporate park in Jericho in 2017.
Macy’s, 151 W. 34th St., Herald Square-Penn Station, 4/00–10/04
I’m showing the back end of the Macy’s flagship store on 7th Ave. because this was the view I had each day when emerging from Penn Station, where I took the LIRR from Flushing each day. The employees’ entrance is an obscure doorway next to the deli on the corner of 7th Ave. and W. 35th.
Macy’s was founded as a dry goods store in 1858 on 6th Ave. and W. 14th St. by Rowland Hussey Macy, a former whaler from Nantucket, MA. He’d run several smaller stores in Haverhill, MA before moving to NYC. His tattoo acquired while at sea, a red five-pointed star, became Macy’s symbol. There are still several red stars visible in the concrete ornamentation of a building on W. 13th St., the back end of the original store. Macy died in 1877. After 40 years on W. 18th in the Ladies’ Mile district, Macy’s moved uptown to a new building in Herald Square in 1902.
The office where I worked was on the 17th floor and several of the offices opened up onto a ledge that overlooked 7th Ave. Naturally, I got out there on a number of occasions and took photos of the view, sticking the camera over the edge. On 9/11, I watched scrambling fighter jets from the ledge.
Macy’s was the first job I found through social media, since I answered an ad on a job site, perhaps Monster. My website Forgotten New York was in full swing by the time I was hired and at lunchtime I’d wander around the neighborhood or take the subway up or downtown. I was using a film camera then and got everything developed in a small shop on 7th Ave.
After a “departmental reorganization” in late 2004 my goose was again cooked at a workplace. In 2019, Macy’s is considering building a luxury residential skyscraper above its flagship building.
Tiffany & Co., 200 5th Ave., Madison Square, 8/13-3/14
I don’t own a single item of jewelry, but have worked several months as a freelance proofreader/copy editor at the world’s biggest jeweler, working on their website which is published in several different languages. Tiffany’s flagship store is on 5th Ave. and 57th St., but their main offices relocated in 2011 to 200 5th Ave., originally the Fifth Ave. Building when built in 1912 (its original clock still stands). The building, formerly the International Toy Center, had been home to offices in that industry; it’s now occupied by Tiffany and the Grey Group (formerly Grey Advertising). Walking the floor at Tiffany, I noticed several of the steel columns bearing the name Carnegie. Two titans of capitalism right there, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Andrew Carnegie!
Pearson Education, 221 River St., Hoboken, NJ, 3/16-11/16
In early 2016, an agency sent me to Pearson in a building on the Hoboken waterfront with gorgeous vies of the Hudson. I viewed several rainbows out of its picture windows after summer storms rolled through. The work was checking textbooks for errors and reformatting them when necessary, as well as tracking work using specialized software. I took to it, and what was going to be a two-week stint stretched out to nine months. All good things come to an end, though. Word comes that the division I was in was sold and will be moving to a different facility in Bergen County.
Currently, I’m serving for what I’m told will be a few weeks for a financial printer near Columbus Circle, a neighborhood I’ve never worked in before.
—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)