Tinsel Trading Company. 828 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10065, USA
Some people like to keep things. Arch Bergoffen did. His thing was thread: shiny, bright, metal-covered thread, made in France, to be specific. It’s proper name, in the 1930s, was “tinsel.” The son of a tailor, Arch (or Mr. B, as he was known) also ended up in the trade: after working as an army mechanic during WWI, he went to work for The French Tinsel Company in Manhattan. He bought the company and its inventory in 1933, changed its name and began a life-long task of gathering.
Over the years, Mr. B accumulated many thousands of spools of imported metal thread. During WWII these were bought in large quantities by the US military, for uniforms, but after the war Tinsel Trading’s stock expanded to include many different types of metal materials and embellishments: trims, fringes, tassels, cord, fabric ribbons and appliqués in every colour, shape and size under the sun. Eventually, when the business shifted from wholesale to retail, metal gave way to even more materials and Mr. B’s shop became known as the place you could take any old stuff you had lying around – decorative items from pre-1960, from all over the world. Word spread that this guy on 38th Street would buy, in the words of his granddaughter Marcia Ceppos, “almost anything, as long as it was old.”
Things began to accumulate in the basement of the shop. Buttons, grosgrain ribbon, taffeta and raffia flowers, sequins, metal stampings, things that were beaded, things made from glass. One of each item bought by Marcia’s grandfather was displayed for sale on the shop shelves, but the rest was stored in that basement…steadily filling up with decades-worth of unopened, carefully-wrapped paper packages and precisely-written labels. Marcia says her grandfather was a pack rat, and thank goodness he was. His hoard of stockpiled items became the shop’s lifeblood, its heart and soul, in years to come.
Walking around Tinsel Trading with me, shop manager and milliner Linda Ashton shares the mini-histories of many achingly beautiful things. There are original spools of military braid and fabric from the 1800s, kept since the earliest days of the business. These metal threads and tassels have an inimitable patina. Linda shows me silvery metal lace that a man “just walked in with” one day – its delicacy and evident age is breath-taking. At a table covered in paper bags full of glittering sequins and glass beads in vivid colours, she tells me about Ellie Greene, a famous bead wholesaler whose last stock ended up here. “People just stand here for hours, digging through crazy bits of things…”
Some of Tinsel Trading’s richly-coloured striped ribbons of pure silk, made on impossibly wide looms, found their way to the shop thanks to a woman whose grandfather had kept them in a warehouse for years. And boxes and boxes containing stacks of vintage millinery flowers were unearthed by a couple who bought and renovated a Woodstock farm – the straw in the old barn had successfully preserved their fabrics, beads and feathers.
Tinsel Trading is the place where all these pretty things came to be loved. Here, now, they shine; displayed in purpose-built glass cabinets and large shelving units, wooden ladders perched to help you get a closer look. It’s like visiting a shrine to all things bright and beautiful, wandering through rows of trims, fabrics, threads and tassels, arranged by colour from light to dark. Some things, like buttons and beads, are set out in bags and jars for foraging – a natural instinct for magpies like me.
The shop has become a place of inspiration, for designers, artists, costume-designers, jewelers, interior-designers and crafters around the world. Martha Stewart introduced her many viewers to one of her favourite “secret sources” in the 1990s. John Galliano, Zac Posen, Ralph Lauren (“all those years of bullion,” Linda reminds me), to name a few; all have sought out Tinsel Trading. Some have asked for recreations using old thread or materials based on old designs, some have used old things to create anew, and some come in and buy just one beautiful little creation to pin on their board – the beginning of a new idea.
When her grandfather died in 1989 it became Marcia’s job to sort out his basement full of treasure. She has worked at the shop, like her mother and father before her, since the age of 11 and it is she who has safely steered Tinsel Trading Company through many changes – including the impossible task of moving the shop (and that famous basement’s contents) around Manhattan…twice.* A partnership with artist Wendy Addison has given Tinsel Trading a perfect new direction – they produce and sell her silver glass glitter letters and vintage-inspired numbers, letterpress printed paper images, boxes and other curiosities. These new-old things sit comfortably alongside what is left of Marcia’s grandfather’s long and storied collection.
There’s a moment in the shop where I’m overcome with a sad nostalgia. It’s the realization that all these beautiful old things are slowly being dispersed once more. Linda reassures me they archive whenever they can, saving “the last one” in each box in case one day, something can be made again. A book has also been published: French General: Treasured Notions, showcasing and chronicling the most exquisite and rare finds from the original shop and its basement on 38th Street. And I feel even better still when a sneaky glance into Marcia’s office reveals the same tendency to “like to keep things” as her grandfather. How lucky for us all.
*Since my visit to their second premises on 37th Street, where these photos were taken, Tinsel Trading Company has moved again. The shop is now located at 828 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10065