A vintage Optimo Cigars sign in Queens has a little bit of everything, and some of it defunct, like ‘Walkman’ and film

Optimo Cigar signs were a staple of old New York. They existed on countless storefronts around the city, along with their cousin in promoting cigar-chomping among Gothamites, Te Amo. These days, Optimo and Te Amo signs are increasingly rare, so it’s a big deal when you find one, especially an example like this pair. They are an archaeological treasure trove.

The sign, above, touts multiple things that are either obsolete, or have been rendered somewhat taboo in New York — especially during the Bloomberg administration, with its aggressive public-health policies — such as, well, Optimo Cigars itself!

The sign also promotes obsolete goodies such as film and “Walkman.” These are all services, along with “radio,” that you can get these days not in piecemeal purchases at, say, a bodega, but on a smartphone, a point I make in this earlier Retrologist post about a nifty 60s sign in Park Slope.

The one right above is on the side of the building, and is also a retro gem, made all the more charming with its missing “I.”

Text and photos: Rolando Pujol 

A sign for a foot-rub parlor in Bensonhurst conceals an old one for Stride Rite, which is in a different branch of the foot-service business

One of New York City’s greatest treasure troves of mom-and-pop shops, complete with wonderful vintage singage, can be found along 18th Avenue in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. 

But not all of the retro signs are out in the open. This one is hiding beneath an awning at 6517 18th Ave. Once upon a time, this was a Stride Rite, which longtime New Yorkers recognize as a popular chain of children’s shoe stores. The mix of colors and font on this particular sign screams 1980s to me.

These days, this storefront is still in the business of caring for people’s soles, but visitors aren’t trying on shoes — they’re kicking them off. This is now Bao Kang, where a weary traveler can find respite with a foot or back rub.

Text and photos: Rolando Pujol

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Retrolicious sign: La Delice Pastry Shop in Kips Bay

La Delice Pastry Shop has been around since 1935. And the current incarnation of the shop, set in a post-war white brick building in Kips Bay, has a wonderful vintage feel.

The inviting sign, with its mix of cursive fonts and the solid PASTRY, is very appealing.

And I just love the big statue of the jolly pastry chef welcoming you to step inside. His work does not disappoint.

Find La Delice at 372 Third Avenue. 

Text and photo: Rolando Pujol

Old-school holdout in Times Square: Starlite Deli

Amid all the glitter, glamour and glitz of the new Times Square, this nice old sign for Starlite Deli stands out on 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue, evoking not a hint of panini, designer coffees or fast food.

Text and photo: Jefferson Siegel

Jefferson Siegel is a New York-based photojournalist and a contributor to The Retrologist.

The Cup & Saucer on the Lower East Side: Keeping it old school

The Cup & Saucer is at 89 Canal St. at Eldridge Street. (Photo: Jefferson Siegel)

Photographer Jefferson Siegel sends along a photo of one of my favorite New York storefronts, the Cup & Saucer Luncheonette on Canal Street on the Lower East Side.

This storefront gets everything right: The mix of fonts and signage, the Coca-Cola logos, and that name … so evocative of a time when luncheonettes were a dime a dozen in New York.

Now, the Cup & Saucer, and places like it, are a treasure.

— Rolando Pujol

The neon ‘Miracles on 34th Street’

Where Murray Hill meets Kips Bay, there is a corner where mid-century New York meets the present.

For starters, the Clover Delicatessen has been holding the fort on the southwestern corner of East 34th Street and Second Avenue since the late 1940s, and its neon sign is one of the finest you’ll see on any street corner. To be sure, it’s the most glorious neon sign left on all of 34th Street, river to river. [Well, with the possible exception of Macy’s.]

But walk next door, and your trip through storefront time continues. This liquor shop has an amazing neon sign in the window.

Notice the “LE” in the telephone number — short for "Lexington exchange" — happily preserved in neon.

That means this sign must date, at the very latest, to the early and middle 1970s, by which time the use of exchange names was being phased out. Today, the store would write “532-0980,” and probably not in neon!

Interestingly, a few people to this day hang on tenaciously to their exchange name. It certainly adds poetry to the common phone number.

You can join the club by figuring out what your exchange name might have been by Googling the words “telephone exchange names” and clicking on the first result.

And then start giving out your cell number in this archaic format: KLondike5-5555.

People might think you’ve had one too many, but you’ll know better.

Text and photos: Rolando Pujol 

A version of this post originally appeared in amNewYork’s Urbanite blog. 

In 1910, in 1972, and in 2012, the same has been true: ‘Lucky City Dwellers Know Their Knishes’

If for some reason you’ve never enjoyed a knish, the place to hit up for these dough dumplings filled with potato or other yummy stuffings is Yonah Shimmel Knish Bakery on the Lower East Side.

They’ve been in business for a mind-blowing 102 years, and are a true treasure of New York, situated along that sacred stretch of East Houston Street that is also home to Russ and Daughters Appetizers and Katz’s Delicatessen.

What spurred this post, other than my love for this place, was a copy of a New York Daily News article from Feb. 7, 1972 that’s still proudly displayed in the window. [The News still went by its classic slogan “New York’s Picture Paper” — it’s been modified today to Hometown Paper. But that stylized camera in the logo survives to this day, giving away its pictorial origins. And in the winter of 1972, The News went for a dime.]

When this article was published, Yonah’s was already 62 years old, an already impressive run. The words reporter Donald Singleton chose to describe Yonah could well have been written today. Here’s a taste:

"It is a little hole in the wall on E. Houston Street, just off the Bowery on the lower East Side, and time has treated it lovingly.

On a cold Sunday morning the windows of the old store are so steamed up you can’t see whether it is open or closed. But as you get close you begin to smell something warm and good in the air, and that aroma is the best evidence that Yonah Shimmel’s Knishery, one of those neighborhood’s relics that is uniquely New York, is still in business, as always.” 

40 years after this article was published, and 102 since the knishery opened in the year of Mark Twain’s death, Yonah’s is — to quote Mr. Singleton —  ”still in business, as always.”

May it ever be so.

Text and photos: Rolando Pujol

Retrolicious sign: Get your ‘Zerox’ copies at Phil’s Stationery

The sign for Phil’s Stationery at 9 E. 47th St., is one hardy and hard-to-miss holdout.

Its bold shade of yellow, mix of fonts and little mid-century stars compel contemplation.

And as we did just that, I noticed a small tag for Sign World, the company that created it. That tag itself carries a little old-school surprise: It bears an old telephone exchange (The NA exchange, short for NAtional?), which helps us date the sign to the 1970s or earlier.

And you have to love the spelling of Xerox as “Zerox.”

Note: I’ve never ventured into Phil’s Stationery, as I always seem to pass by when it’s closed. These folks did, and it may inspire you to visit.

Text and photos: Rolando Pujol

Note: A version of this piece originally appeared in amNewYork.

A Retrolicious sign that’s no more: New Caporal Fried Chicken and Shrimp

Look at this sign, and savor it.

It’s as delicious as the fried chicken that was served here for decades. More than a year ago, New Caporal Fried Chicken and Shrimp, on Broadway in the 150s in Washington Heights, abruptly shut down. And the distinctive facade you see before you vanished with it.

What a loss. The highlight is the adorable chicken, so eager for you to devour him that he fires a flag that says “Fried” from his gun. And the lettering on the signage itself is so thoughtful: Note the choice of colors, the mix of fonts, the little ribbons descending from the word “New.” 

That kind of thought rarely goes into signage today. (Added touch: The hand-written sign for “Worlds Best Chicken Sandwich $2.00.” Now that’s a good value, and I’d be inclined to believe the claim.)

And the facade itself speaks to a joint that’s time-tested and neighborhood approved. It had nothing to prove. The proof is in the grub inside, and from surviving reviews on Yelp, this place had a following.

A story in DNA Info last year by Carla Zanoni captures what this place meant to its neighborhood:

When a beloved neighborhood haunt that has been serving up delectable dishes for after school and late night cravings for years serves its last meal, a neighborhood mourns.

I mourn for the loss of this business, for what these places represent and how inhospitable New York has become to them. 

Alas, being more of a connoisseur of vintage signage than fried chicken, I did not venture inside, and I regret that. This line from the DNA story frustrates the foodie in me as I ponder the meal I will never have:

Caporal’s fried food was a thing of legend and culinary exaltation: crispy, tender and more importantly, cheap.

I took the photo above in October 2010; little did I know the restaurant had a few months of life left in it. It closed in February 2011.

I just hope somebody saved that sign.

Text and photo: Rolando Pujol

Retrolicious Sign: J&R Color TV in Park Slope

The riot of pop colors! The names of mid-century technologies preserved in plastic! This sign for J&R Color TV in Park Slope is a true wonder. For The Retrologist, the J&R sign is a highlight of every walk down Seventh Avenue in The Slope. What’s not to love about a sign that promotes the magic of color TV, phonos and tape recorders, all things that people essentially carry around in their pockets today, consolidated into a smartphone. It’s truly one of the best signs of its era left in New York City.

Text and photos: Rolando Pujol