For Eddie Feibusch, a Life in Zippers
New York City’s garment industry once had lots of zipper shops, some bigger than his, Mr. Feibusch says. But little by little they relocated, to China, India, Costa Rica. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks. “They couldn’t get their goods in,” he said. “That was the end of the business.”
But not for Mr. Feibusch, a prewar refugee from Vienna who overcame not just the Nazis but also Velcro, and opened his business on Dec. 7, 1941, of all days. Yes, a Sunday. He is Jewish; he takes the Sabbath off and works Sundays. Today, he says, he is the last big New York zipper man standing, or at least the last to exclusively represent the Japanese-owned but made-in-America YKK zippers (slogan: “Little Parts. Big Difference”) — the best, to hear Mr. Feibusch tell it.
Why the best? That’s an easy one. “Nobody makes them better.”
So when a recalcitrant zipper threatened to be, or not to be, Queen Gertrude’s undoing in a Metropolitan Opera production of “Hamlet” last month, the Met dispatched a costumer, Michael Zacker, to Mr. Feibusch for a new zipper for Jennifer Larmore’s gown. “He really has great products,” Mr. Zacker said.
Retail, they go from 50 cents for a nylon dress zipper to $100 for a No. 10 brass zipper, 350 inches long, to wrap your hot-air balloon.
How great are zippers? Don’t even get Mr. Feibusch started. They are watertight for deep-sea divers, airtight for NASA. “Nothing replaces a zipper,” he said. Buttons? He made a face. “A button is unpleasant,” he said.
O.K., a quick history of the zipper. Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine, patented an “automatic, continuous clothing closure” in 1851. But then he dropped it. So that wasn’t the zipper. At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Whitcomb Judson and Col. Lewis Walker showed off their “clasp locker,” a hook-and-eye shoe closure that latched two rows of jagged facing teeth together. But it took their head designer, Gideon Sundback, an electrical engineer, to increase the number of teeth from 4 to up to 11 per inch, to join and separate them with a slider, and to build a machine to manufacture continuous chains of the “separable fastener,” patented in 1917. This was the zipper.
B. F. Goodrich registered the term in 1925 when it added the fastener to its rubber boots. French fashion designers were won over in 1937 after the zipper beat the button in “The Battle of the Fly.” And Esquire magazine said the new zippered fly promised to end “the possibility of unintentional and embarrassing disarray.”
Back to Mr. Feibusch. His parents, Isaac and Anna, owned a grocery store in Vienna, but after annexing Austria in 1938, the Nazis arrested Isaac and shut the business. Relatives in Brooklyn helped arrange the family’s emigration to America in 1939. Eddie, then 16, went to New Utrecht High School. For three weeks. He dropped out to become an errand boy in a grocery store, then a clerk in a garment shop. “And then, in April 1941,” he said, “I got into the zipper line.”
With Europe at war, zippers were hard to come by. He worked for a shop in Brooklyn that reclaimed zippers from used clothes. Then he had a revelation: “If my boss can do it, I can do it.” He quit in December to open his own shop at 111 Hester Street. “I had a cousin across the street who could fix me lunch,” he remembered. The rent was $20 a month. He was coming to open up the first day when he passed a candy store with big newspaper headlines: Pearl Harbor Bombed.
In May 1943 he was drafted into the infantry and joined the invasion of Italy. His mother took over the store. At Anzio he was shot in the stomach, groin and leg and spent a year in Europe recuperating and another year in a hospital in Atlantic City. “I was one of the first ever to have a colostomy bag,” Mr. Feibusch said. He pulled up his shirt to show scars.
One of his aunts had seen a pretty girl getting her hair done in a beauty parlor and impulsively asked if she wanted a blind date with her nephew. Which is how Mr. Feibusch met Susie Neugarten, who herself had fled the Nazis with her family. Her relatives checked him out. Susie’s grandmother came to the zipper shop and pulled out the bottom boxes, to make sure there were zippers there too, not just in the top boxes to look good. There were. They married in 1950.
In 1982, Mr. Feibusch lost his lease and moved around the corner to 30 Allen Street. In 1999, an upstairs tenant, irate over a lack of heat, sloshed gasoline over the floor and burned down the building, including all the zippers. Insurance covered the loss and Mr. Feibusch opened up across the street at 27 Allen.
He has a staff of 12, mostly Chinese, and his son, Jeff. (His daughter, Diane Resnick, lives in Florida.)
“I can count in Chinese; I know colors,” Mr. Feibusch said. “When they talk about zippers, I know what they’re talking about.”