Breathing New Life into Vintage at Brooklyn Reclamation

Photos by Eddy Vallante

Photos by Eddy Vallante

By Jason McGahan

All you need to know about the newest vintage furniture store in Williamsburg can be told in one unusual table. It is a small kitchen table whose top is stripped from the lane of a 1920s-era bowling alley in Elm Grove, West Virginia. The iron base on which the top is balanced used to be a stanchion pole in the Wheeling Tunnel. “We cleaned out Elm Grove Lanes,” acknowledged David Sofsky, a member of the Sofsky family that owns Brooklyn Reclamation. “Two full-length trailers filled with bowling alley paraphernalia. Forty lanes of it. It’s enough wood to make end tables, bar tops, and stools for the next 10 years.” The price tag for the table is $1,400—owing to the fact that the wood is nearly a century old and the table was customized with re-purposed material. “The most expensive stuff is the oldest stuff, and the stuff that’s customized,” David said. “I do think, for those items, we’re on the reasonable side, price-wise.” “We try to keep prices affordable for the average customer. We get some customers coming in with big bucks. We also get young people just moving into the area.”

The supplier of the furnishings is Emil Sofsky, the Sofsky paterfamilias, a Greenpoint native who left the city for West Virginia more than 20 years ago. To keep himself busy in the Rust Belt—as that region of the country is called—Emil started bargain-hunting at estate auctions. “There’s a lot of history here. And a lot of great stuff,” Emil said of his adopted home in a phone interview. “People out here don’t appreciate it as much as young people coming up in an urban environment. They’re more appreciative of that aesthetic. Like an urban-primitive aesthetic.”

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Emil’s exuberant pursuit of new “finds” in West Virginia quickly filled his house and garage to the breaking point. “We were worried he was turning into a junk collector,” David recalled. But instead of that, Emil came up with a plan for all of his “junk.” In the late 1990s he started hauling his odds and ends to New York to vintage stores in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. They paid him enough for him to continue at it for 15 years. After that, the oldest of his eight children, the ones who never really left Brooklyn, clued him in to an opportunity to open a store in Williamsburg.

Emil said he is thrilled with the new changes taking place in his old neighborhood. He remembers times when he was the only passenger to get off at the Bedford L station. “This was before Brooklyn was hip,” he emphasized. “And watching Brooklyn turning into what it’s becoming is wonderful to see.” It’s fitting that Emil ended up in the vintage furniture business in Williamsburg. Talking to him about the neighborhood is like getting a history lesson. “My grandfather was a longshoreman. It’s in the blood,” he said. “Scully caps and hooks on their shoulders coming off the river. It was like On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando. That’s what Williamsburg and Greenpoint was. That’s deep in our makeup.”

When his sons came to him with an idea to open a vintage furniture store—in effect, to cut out the middleman—Emil reached out to a neighbor in West Virginia he hardly knew, to ask about customizing furniture. As luck would have it, the neighbor turned out to be an expert craftsman. With good help on his side, Emil set up a warehouse and a workshop, and ended up hiring a second craftsman. Brooklyn Reclamation opened in April of last year, and business has been steady from the start.

On the day the store opened, a film crew for HBO sent someone over to rent furniture for a TV show they were filming across the street. Appropriately enough, the show was How to Make It in America. “We ended up renting half the store to them,” David said. The film crew of Men in Black 3 made a similar arrangement with the store. And Nike recently rented out some bleacher seats and dugout benches for a promotional event.

The Sofsky family has lately been branching out into customizing stores and restaurants in Manhattan. They’re doing work for coffee shops in the Gramercy and on the Lower East Side. There’s a word for what Emil does: he’s a picker. He’d been doing it for 10 years before anyone told him what it was called. Hal Sofsky, another of Emil’s sons, said his father is relentless at it. “You can’t go for a drive without him. If every piece in the store has a story, Emil knows them all. “The other day a guy took me up on the third floor of an old building,” he said. “It was right on the river in a place that would historically flood. They would keep boats in the attic.” In the attic of that house, the guy showed Emil a 14-foot metal rowboat built in 1930. “It was ready to go out the window. It’s kind of like that. You go into some place and boom you find something like that.”

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Hal says that his father’s “Brooklyn gift of gab” tends to open doors in that part of the country. Emil once bought thousands of pieces of fine china from a Masonic lodge in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Each piece of china bore a Masonic emblem of a Janus-faced eagle perched on a sword. He sold the whole collection to a restaurant in Manhattan, and sent the boys a big wooden sign from the lodge’s ballroom that read “Absolutely No Smoking on Dance Floor,” which some guy in Williamsburg bought for his apartment. Emil once talked his way into an all-girls Catholic school scheduled for demolition in Wheeling, rescuing an old painted cabinet from the 1850s that was used by the nuns. The old classroom maps of Europe that adorn the wall in Brooklyn Reclamation—maps that chart “The Expansion of the Roman Empire” and “Eastern and Germanic Migrations to 486”—are more fruit from that adventure. “We took a lot of mirrors out of there, too,” Emil recalled, “and some old wooden confessionals.” 

There is an early-1900s dresser in the showroom that Emil found in a mental hospital in Warren, Ohio. There is a bookcase with framed-glass doors he found in a state hospital in Allentown. He sold the worktables from an old glass factory that went out of business in Wheeling. There is also a “Cecilia Melophonic” record player from 1900 on sale —steel needles included— that Emil found at the Moundsville Penitentiary.

“Instead of shopping at IKEA,” David reasoned, “why not get something 100 years old that’s still in good shape and looks great?” Emil said he is relocating to a larger workspace to better supply the steady demand. I saw the storage room in the back of the store. It was practically empty. “We turn over stuff so much,” David said. “One of our problems is keeping up with demand.” Emil said that people can actually feel the history and quality of the pieces when they walk in. The right piece can prick a browser’s sense of nostalgia, for reasons that are hard to predict. “People just relate to stuff for random reasons,” Hal said. Like the furnishing for sale in the store, he pointed out, “a lot of people here are from somewhere else.”

Since the writing of this story, Brooklyn Reclamation was named by the Village Voice as the “Best Furniture Store in New York,” in their “Best of Award 2012”issue.