PR Niblets

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Visit to Coney Island in Tribute to My Mentor

Life's travels often take us in unexpected directions.  Growing up in Coney Island to immigrant parents was my only frame of reference.  I had no clue that one of the part-time jobs I would secure at age 16 would imprint my life so heavily.... but then Lou Powsner was no ordinary employer.

Lou was the owner of a small haberdashery store -- Powsner's Mens Shop -- but stopping there wouldn't scratch the surface. Over the 10 years of my employment there, and decades of friendship, he would  serve as a role model for what salesmanship meant and as inspiration for a career in journalism and later public relations. Lou died on April 6, 2014 at age 93.


New York City decided to honor Lou for his contributions to Coney Island, Brooklyn and New York City by naming the street corner near the former clothing store in his memory. The ceremony was held on Saturday, September 25, 2015. Lou's family honored me by asking me to speak at the event, together with speakers including former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, N.Y.C. Councilman Mark Treyger and N.Y.S. Assemblyman William Colton.  

My comments (apologies for the length) and some images taken by my son Alex appear below.

"Good morning everyone.  My name is Henry Feintuch. And for the first 25 years of my life starting in the early 1950s, I was a Coney Islander… initially living on West 30th between Mermaid and Neptune Ave. in a three-story walk-up. Then, as my family “moved up,” we were able to afford an apartment in the fairly new Coney Island Houses. I attended P.S. 188 and then was part of the first class at P.S. 288… followed by Mark Twain in the SPE…. and later Lincoln H.S. and Brooklyn College.


My folks were holocaust survivors; they migrated to America in 1950 with my brother Steven. My father, David, owned “Dave’s Barber Shop” at 2516 Mermaid Ave. across from Gittler’s deli. It was the era when Sam Horwitz owned the Mermaid Movie Theatre and Jay and Aaron Turoff owned a local hardware store nearby; Yankel had a live poultry store; Frank Giordano owned Frisica Pharmacy; and Al Sinrod and Morty Pearl owned competing men’s stores.  Sam Horwitz, by the way, later went on to become a beloved Democratic district leader and city councilman representing Coney Island; Jay became NYC’s taxi commissioner and later resigned in disgrace in a major scandal involving the TLC.

Coney Island was very diverse in the 50’s and 60’s…. before diverse was a buzzword.  Whites… black… Puerto Ricans… Italians… Christians… Jews…. In the 70s, Russian Jews and Vietnamese joined the mosaic here and in Brighton Beach.  Coney Island was a tough neighborhood… but we all got along.

Sidewalk plaque
It was against this backdrop in 1968 or 1969 that my late parents introduced me to Lou Powsner for a possible part-time job while I attended Lincoln. Lou hired me on the spot, and, because of that fateful happenstance, my young adulthood, career and values were forever shaped.

Working for Lou Powsner provided daily lessons in retail merchandising and salesmanship. If you came in for a pair of socks or Jockey shorts, you would be hard pressed to walk out without a sales pitch – often successful – for a shirt, tie and a three pack of t-shirts.  Life lesson #1:  clerks take orders; sales people sell.

And selling is what Lou did. Following in his father Simon’s footsteps, he sold Stetson hats to older Jewish clientele; Kangol hats and Devil Jeans to minority youngsters in the community; knit polos to Italian customers; and every other manner of clothing and accessory from suits and jackets to spats, suspenders and cufflinks to old, middle aged and young consumers alike.

Air Force honor guard at ceremony
If you walked into Lou’s store, you might have questioned the laws of physics and gravity with boxes stacked impossibly high from floor to ceiling. And yet, when someone came in for a double XL knit shirt that was in the right window 2 years ago, he knew that where it was located. Within a minute, he was up on an eight foot ladder juggling boxes and pulling out the garment in four colors. He was always right. And you wound up buying the shirt in two colors. Plus socks.  And underwear. And a handkerchief.

After a few years, I became Lou’s colleague and foil. We joked that we WERE running a father and son men’s store – where he wasn’t my father… and I wasn’t his son. But in many ways, we were nearly just that.

The OTHER things I learned working for Lou are likely the reason we’re all here today. He didn’t just run a “father and son” men’s clothing store – a sign on the building proclaimed “Welcome to Lou Powsner’s Little City Hall.” He held court six days a week as local residents, merchants, teachers, clergy, police, elected officials and others streamed in or called to discuss issues of the day and seek Lou’s help or guidance… or… simply to argue with him. Life lesson #2:  If you say you’re going to do it (or the sign says it), you’d better deliver.  Lou always did.

Dedication ceremony program
For many years, Lou was the president of the Coney Island Board of Trade. But trying to help the merchants of Coney Island to organize and improve Mermaid Ave. wasn’t enough for Lou. He wanted more clout and a greater voice. So he helped to form an organization of similar groups on Main Streets all over Brooklyn. Lou served as president of the new Joint Council of Kings County Boards of Trade. The calls came all day – answered by Lou in a jingle like voice that often boomed “Thank you for listening to the melodious tones of Louis Powsner.” The ring was so incessant one might of thought he was running a bookie joint. He wasn’t; he was following an internal calling to do good for others.


His causes were both local and far and wide – some popular; many less so: He fought against numerous sales tax hikes; tried to kill the Kings Plaza Mall before it put local main street merchants out of business; he lobbied for brighter street lights in Coney to protect residents and local merchants; he tried to bring casinos to Coney Island; he labored to revive the fading amusement section; he took on Fred Trump when Fred reneged on a deal to create set-aside low income units in Coney’s Trump Village; he took on big business and box stores; and city government giveaways to large merchants at the expense of mom and pop stores.
Marty Markowitz speaking


He called mayors and borough presidents and congressmen and assemblyman and councilman with a long list of needs and cries for help – never for himself but for fellow merchants and community residents. Despite the often unpleasant nature of the calls, government officials took his calls or called him back. This merchant of Coney knew how to shake things up.  Life lesson #3:  It’s not about size... it’s about speaking out consistently and strongly for something you believe in.

And Lou had another bully pulpit – he wrote a weekly column for the Kings Courier and Brooklyn Graphic and other local Brooklyn papers. Each week, he’d sit at a shirt counter and pound away for hours straight on an old manual typewriter. Sometimes he wrote sports columns; other times he wrote about a family vacation with his wife Irene and children, Farrell and Bonnie.  And then there were the columns that shook City Hall.
What Lou didn’t accomplish on the phone or during in-person meetings, he’d pursue by newspaper. He’d finish his column (typed in triplicate using carbon paper) and I would walk to the corner mailbox to send it on to the newspapers. When the columns hit, his irate subjects would call the store to rip him. All in a day’s work at Lou Powsner’s Little City Hall.   Life lesson #4:  Never underestimate the power of a strong writer and citizen journalist.

And I didn’t. By the time I went to Brooklyn College, my major had become television and radio… I became news director at Brooklyn College Radio and my career as a fledgling journalist was cast.

I continued working for Lou, part-time while at B.C., until one day he announced he was running for office.  Lou waged a Don Quixote-like uphill campaign, which he called the people’s campaign, for NYC councilman-at-large. He ran in the Democratic primary in a field of six candidates including the then Democratic boss Stanley Steingut’s son, Robert “Bobby Steingut.”  I took a leave of absence from school to help manage the campaign.

Lou's daughter, Bonnie Snow
Objectively, we had no chance of winning in a field of five better-known and better-funded candidates. For a half year, family, friends and merchants pounded the pavement, put campaign signs on our cars and pushed Lou’s view of the issues of the day out for all to see.  He came in fourth out of a field of six (Steingut won and would later be indicted and then cleared of campaign improprieties). Lou never regretted the campaign run but that ended his formal stint with politics. Life lesson #5:  Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams.

I finally graduated from Brooklyn College, and went to work on the air at WTTM Radio in Trenton and WMTR and WDHA-FM radio in Morristown, New Jersey. Lou was very proud. Then I landed a job at Channel 2 News in New York. Lou beamed again at my success. Between jobs, there was always roo

m for me at 1712 Mermaid Avenue where I could earn a few dollars to put gas in my car.

Then I finally settled down into a public relations career, now in my fourth decade. Lou and I always retained our love and respect for each other.

For me, the life lessons I learned in salesmanship, retail merchandising, civics, community activism, politics and ethics were all earned from the College of Louis W. Powsner. After all, here was a former soldier, husband, father and small town haberdasher who demonstrated the power that one man could have on his neighbors, community, city and beyond.
The sign in place and a community remembers


Family and guests proudly displaying new street sign

This stretch of Mermaid Avenue was always Lou Powsner’s Place to me. Now, it all comes full circle and we all get to share it together and keep his memory and spirit alive.


Thank you."

7 comments:

  1. A beautiful tribute, Henry, and especially meaningful for me to get hear MY first boss reflect on his. :-)

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  2. Nice tribute to an exceptional man-very well deserved and very well written-

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  3. hello Henry, it's been a long long time. In researching the opening of PS#288 (they year it opened) for my book on growing up in Brooklyn I came across this site of yours. I write about you and your newspaper route and your dad the tailor and his strange tattoo in my book. I will be finished editing it hopefully in the next few months. I'm wondering if you have friends in the publishing business who might be interesting in reading my finished manuscript. I would self publish as a last option. gconey9999@yahoo.com take care, gary

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  4. Hi again Henry, for some reason I remember your dad as a tailor, didn't he have a shop across Mermaid on W29th st?

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  5. Knock knock Henry, your dad was a tailor no? I feel like Soupy Sales.

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