Upon finishing my Thanksgiving turkey, I turned on the evening news that speculated the outcome of the Black Friday retail riots, reminding me of the post-Christmas 1950s cash sale mayhem that broke out in the vicinity of Mad Men 44th Street. Before credit cards became transactional norm, tailoring establishments often were cash strapped by New Year’s Eve. In Search of a Gentleman, an 1856 squib in the British gazette Punch lamented, “The well-known fiction that a tailor is always about the last person a gentleman ever thinks of paying.” Bill collectors at the door, our bespoke celebrities became persona non grata until they paid up.
Much of the upscale rag trade in the vicinity of Madison Avenue, not unlike J. Press, was family owned. Year’s end, cash flow was dried up with bank factors and credit resources loudly banging on the doors of CFOs. Private in-store charge accounts accounted for a majority of purchases and were due thirty days after billing and custom garments thirty days after final try-ons. After the New Year’s Eve hangover, Filene’s Basement out of Boston was often summoned to provide petty cash for the mistaken inventory left hanging untended. Filene’s paid a small percentage of original cost, providing Paul Press a pocketful of miracles. Post-Christmas Cash Sale tendered a palliative frosting on the cake.
When I arrived on the scene in 1959, the Ivy League Look was already in Hall of Fame territory, its Cooperstown on 44th Street. Newspaper advertisements announcing the cash sale didn’t appear until January 2, by then stores barely able to cope with mobs of drooling bargain hunters with postcard sale notices in hand.
Irving Press, my uncle and boss, plunked me on the mat in front of the store entrance, linebacker, blocker and tackler engaging the onslaught of crushing minions. Not wearing a football helmet, my only protective gear were the reduced shoulder pads of my three button suit. After the store closing, I was part of the sweating crew performing manual labor hours into the night hanging up suits strewn across the floor, re-folding and re-pinning shirts, untangling strung together neckties, bowing and scraping the premise floor groveling amidst the debris of cluttered tweed.
I often shared battleground experiences next door in the coffee shop with my two competing Pauls, Ostrove and Winston, who performed similar obligations at Paul Stuart and Chipp, often with the same customers vying for deals store to store.
Post-Christmas Cash Sale mayhem no longer goes at J. Press. A friendlier tone prevails that pays obeisance to the Golden Rules promulgated by my eponymous grandfather: