pickle guys: a conversation about change and preservation

Exterior: The Pickle Guys

The last remaining pickle shop of Manhattan’s Lower East Side is an unassuming structure squeezed amongst red pre-war brownstones on Essex Street and bearing a green vinyl sign proclaiming “The Pickle Guys” in large yellow letters. Its owner, 55-year-old Alan Kaufman — or Al, as he is known to his friends and devoted customers — is more than just a brine master: he is a historian who has devoted his life to the art of preservation of not only food, but of a lost era.

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“I’m not really big on change, and I like to keep it the way it always was. That way, when people come down, they can see how it used to be,” he says. “You know, it’s tradition. You gotta have tradition.”

The owner, Fifty-Five-year-old Alan “Al” Kaufman, is more than just a brine master: he is a historian whose life is focused on the art of preservation of not only food, but of a lost era.

Pickle Guys was first opened in 1980, after Kaufman left his position as manager in the once-famous Guss’s Pickle Shop, which has since closed. But pickles, says Kaufman, “have been here in this neighborhood since 1910.

At the start of the twentieth century, the Lower East Side was known for its peddlers and hot dogs, and of course, its pickle shops, which were often founded by  Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

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“If you’re coming into a country you don’t know anything about, you’re not gonna come to Miami, you’re not gonna go to Colorado,” Kaufman explains. “’The boat let me off here? I’m gonna go three blocks away from here’, and that’s it. And that’s how it started. They brought over what they knew, and they knew how to manufacture pickles. It was a comfort food, it was inexpensive to start up a pickle business, and that’s what they did.”

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At this point in time, however, the community is changing as a new wave of gentrification sweeps through the  historical mecca.

“This neighborhood is changing, it’s becoming gentrified,” Kaufman says thoughtfully. “Do I think it’s better? I don’t know. It’s a good neighborhood, I know that. It’s a very nice neighborhood. But I kinda miss the old days… People who come here now expect to see the old days. It’s not like that anymore.

“Now we are the last real, traditional pickle store standing. We actually make everything by hand; there are no machines here.”

There isn’t even a cash register. “We take money and do the math in our head,” shrugs Kaufman. “We don’t have a machine that says ‘give three dollars’ back. We do it the old way. People need to learn how to add. You start using the machine, you forget how to add.”

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Inside the shop, long, fluorescent lightbulbs hang off the low ceiling, casting shadows over the bright red plastic barrels strewn alongside an exposed brick wall, each filled with pickled delights — pickled olives, pineapple, herring, cucumbers, and pickled watermelon in the fall, if you are lucky enough to snag some before it sells out.

But the most popular item here? “Sour pickles,” Kaufman asserts. “We sell more than anything else here. I’ll go through at least one barrel, two barrels a day just of sour.”

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You could say that Kaufman embodies the community of the Lower East Side: he is loud and boisterous, with a spirited laugh, a broad smile and an old-school sensibility and friendliness.

2014-04-08 17.31.55Although Kaufman was born, raised, and resides in Queens, he has made the Lower East his second home, becoming a fixture in the community– particularly the Jewish one– which makes up the majority of his clientele.

“I feel very connected to everyone down here,” he says. “I’ve been here so long, I’ve seen at least three generations of families buy pickles from me. So I kinda have a personal connection to everyone here. I feel comfortable walking around here. People thank me for actually being here, and in most jobs, nobody gives you a thank you.”

In the spring and summer months, the storefront opens to the street. With Passover soon approaching, Kaufman’s long-time friend and part-time employee, Chris, grinds fresh horseradish while wearing a gas mask to prevent his eyes from tearing. It’s an unusual sight, even for New York City, and passersby stop to watch the show.

One such bystander is an elderly woman sporting a cane and white, curly, short hair, who asks for sweet Passover horseradish.

But they’ve stopped making it, says Kaufman, who acknowledges changing tastes of his clientele: “The young people these days like their horseradish hot.”

Freshly Ground Horseradish

“If things change, we change with them,” he acquiesces. “In the old days, we only had a couple of barrels. Over the years, I carry more and more items. I carry roughly thirty-five, thirty-six items, everything in barrels. We expand more to get more revenue.”

2014-04-08 16.54.57-1As much as the LES is changing, Kaufman’s one hope for the future is to continue the legacy of preserving the traditional atmosphere that his shop brings to it.

“I would hope that this store is here forever,” he says. “My hope is to finish my lifetime here and give it to the employees who are here, and hopefully they’ll finish taking care of it in their lifetimes.”

And after that?

“I don’t know,” he admits. “Let’s hope they’ll be able to make the rent.”

Photos by: Chaya Bar-Chaim