Catching Up with Gilbert Center, the Umbrella Man

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When I spoke to Mr. Center on the phone last month, we agreed to meet in front of the old shop called Uncle Sam on W. 57th St., across from Carnegie Hall. I was calling as the owner of an umbrella with a broken ferrule. Uncle Sam's specialty was canes and umbrellas. It closed down a year ago and now lies empty but still retains the Uncle Sam signboard above the entrance, and, since the closing, has given over one of its display windows to an announcement that Gilbert Center is still available for umbrella repairs. Gilbert Center worked at the shop for many years selling and repairing, and before that, he had his own umbrella store on Essex St. Now, at age 77, white-haired and slightly stooped, he'll not only fix an umbrella and make it like new, but personally come by for it and deliver it as well.

At 10 o'clock in the morning, the hour of our appointment, Mr. Center was standing a few doors up from the old shop with a leopard-spotted ladies' umbrella dangling from his bare arm and a woman up in age like himself standing next to him. Presumably it was her umbrella Mr. Center was sporting. He was busy writing her address in a notepad, so she, rather than he, was the first one to notice me.

"Are you the one from New Jersey?" She had a Yiddish accent. "He's almost done with me. Isn't he amazing? Keep going!" she shouted at Mr. Center, rooting him on.

Mr. Center looked up. "I'm the last of the Mohicans. Nobody does what I'm doing."

"Keep going!" shouted the woman. "I think it's great what you're doing."

When my turn came, I handed over my black umbrella, which Mr. Center stuffed inside a blue plastic sheath. Several years back, I went to Uncle Sam with the same umbrella and handed it to Mr. Center. He told me at the time, "Any umbrella can be fixed," and something about the casual way he said it filled me with confidence and caused the line to stick in my head ever since.

Before we parted this last time, I asked him where he was headed, and he told me he had a few umbrellas to take down to the courthouse.

"I never realized there were such devoted people to umbrellas," he said. "Uncle Sam meant something to them. I only found it out when the place was closing."

Two weeks later I returned for my umbrella, but also to have a chat with Mr. Center about his business. We met near the same place on 57th St. as before and then walked to Central Park and sat down on the grass together. He had the blue plastic sheath again, but only a couple of umbrellas in it?a light load he'd picked up earlier that morning from a long-standing customer whose line is repairing handbags. This same man gives out that he also repairs umbrellas, but in fact he calls Mr. Center, who shows up with his blue sheath. Many of the big stores in town?Barneys, Burberry, Paul Stuart, Louis Vuitton?put in a call to Mr. Center when a customer returns with a broken umbrella.

For my umbrella he only wanted $10 to replace the ferrule, even though, as it turned out, there was also a ripped seam, and all told the work probably took him a half hour.

"I don't have the heart to charge more for this," he explained. "Sometimes I tell the customer the cost will be $20, and then when I'm done I say, 'Gimme $10.' Like today, I delivered a little folding umbrella. A guy wants this umbrella, he's crazy about his little folding umbrella. His secretary says to me, 'My boss is nutty. Who wants to save an umbrella? How many times has he fixed this thing already?"'

Mr. Center quoted a price of $20 to repair the umbrella, but ended up charging the fellow a mere $10.

"It's really not worth more than $10," he said of the umbrella. "But the work I put into it?it took time to fix it. That's why I'm not rich. You're better off fixing a VCR or a tv. Sometimes it takes as long to fix an umbrella. But that's my game. I mean, I'm making a living."

Broken ribs are the bread and butter of the umbrella repair trade. The charge to fix a broken rib is $35. But most umbrellas on the street are cheaply made throwaways, three of which together will cost you $35. So Mr. Center only gets so many broken ribs. The whole game is passing away with the influx of cheap umbrellas. Uncle Sam Umbrellas and Canes was the last shop of its kind in the city. Technically, the owner lost her lease and that finished it, but really it went out because the taste for fine umbrellas was gone.

With so little repair action remaining, even for one man, Mr. Center tries to cut expenses where he can. Thus, the personalized pickups and deliveries. Because most of his customers live around Central Park, particularly the lower end, near the site of the old shop, he's able to bunch together a number of house calls in one day.

"I love to do it Saturday morning because there's no traffic. I take the car and I hit here?Central Park W. Then I go through the park and hit Lexington Ave. I'm done in maybe two hours and I've picked up something like six, seven umbrellas."

He has two work spaces?three, counting his kitchen. The main one is in Farmingdale and is given to him rent-free by an associate in the umbrella business ("He only does imports"). Once, maybe twice a week, he loads his car with damaged umbrellas and makes the drive to Farmingdale from Inwood, where he lives. All his parts and machinery are out there in Farmingdale. His cutting table, sewing machine, drill press, everything.

Then there's the space in the basement of his apartment house. His landlord, it turns out, is also very kind to him. "He says, 'Yeah, I'll help you out. Here, take this space?free.'" The problem is, the landlord has a bed in there for his own use. He doesn't live in the building, but he does all his own repairs. "He puts on his plumbing hat when he wants to do plumbing. He puts on the painter's hat when he's painting an apartment. So sometimes it's a two-day job, he sleeps over. He's in that place, so I can't work because of the bed."

As a last resort, he'll spread out to work in his own kitchen, but then he has trouble with his wife and who can blame her? "What wife likes to have a messy apartment? Like I did six parasols now for somebody. I brought them home in a big bag. It's standing on the couch till I take them to the woman on Friday. Sometimes she's okay, but sometimes she gets nutty. She says, 'What do you think this is?' I say, 'Yeah, but that's my living now. Who pays the bills?' So we argue back and forth. But she's right, it's a place to live."

There's no set busy season per se in Mr. Center's field. "If it doesn't rain, it doesn't matter what time of the year it is. I won't be doing the business. But once it rains, all of a sudden the phone starts to ring. People remember. They want to go for their umbrella?it's busted. Or that day they use it?it's busted." During these peak periods, Mr. Center uses an assistant named Chris Kissoon. But recently there hadn't been work for the assistant, and not much work for his employer, either.

"It hasn't been raining, it's been dry," Mr. Center said, and his voice cried out on that last word, dry. And now I understood why he seemed in low spirits. It was another beautiful day in the city?sunny, with no humidity?but to an umbrella man this is the most gloomy scenario. It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon and all he had to show for it were the two umbrellas he'd picked up from the handbag repair guy.

A few days later I had to speak to him on the phone again, and at that moment?in New Jersey at least?the skies looked threatening. I mentioned this fact to him, thinking it would cheer him up. But the umbrella man was somber.

"Really?" he said. "Here there's not a cloud to be seen."

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