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Weaving Narratives: Leonard Bernstein's Literary Take on the Garment District

In “The Man Who Wanted to Buy a Heart,” he recalls the quirks and the failings and what he sees as the nobility of the area of the Fifties and Sixties.

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Leonard S Bernstein

Leonard S. Bernstein

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There have always been plenty of characters on Seventh Avenue. People with bigger-than-life personalities abound. But there are hardly any literary characters from the Garment District — at least until now.

Leonard S. Bernstein — who took over Candlesticks Inc., his family’s children’s wear business, in 1953 — has penned a book of short stories, most of which weave in and out of small New York apparel manufacturers. In “The Man Who Wanted to Buy a Heart” (University of New Orleans Press), Bernstein, 80, remembers fondly the quirks and the failings and what he sees as the nobility of the Garment District of the Fifties and Sixties.

“It was nontech,” says Bernstein, who hammered out the manuscript on his old manual typewriter. “It was dirty. It was sloppy. Very often the manufacturers didn’t know exactly what they were doing or how to do it right, but it was a good time in New York, a good time in America. We hired, people worked, they earned a living. It was honest and, in fairness, the wind was in our sails.”

Many of the book’s 17 stories reach out for some sort of common decency. Characters, even those who aren’t very good at their jobs, find a place for themselves in the warrens of the Garment District.

“You are forgetting what Shakespeare and Wordsworth said about the poetry of age,” says one of Bernstein’s creations, Simon Englehart, as he pitches for a job as a salesman. “You are forgetting about style, grace and nobility.”

Englehart gets the job, but his poetic soul doesn’t connect with the market, so he occasionally steals a pen from a buyer to prove to his boss that he is out there, pounding the pavement, trying to sell. His collection of 29 pens becomes a touchstone for the manager, a reminder of the importance of a personal connection over a business decision.

As perhaps the lone writer of fiction centered on the Garment District, Bernstein opens a window on a world that in large part has passed.

“You can learn about our heritage, and even though this is fiction, everything is true, everything could have happened even if it didn’t,” the author says.

“That was a different world, the old world of the apparel industry,” Bernstein recalls. “It was easier. You didn’t have to be so brilliant. Everything was small and it was a little easier for somebody like me to get a grip on it and do OK, and so I did, and I had a good time.

“Maybe I’m overly nostalgic, but I kind of miss it,” he says. “There was a certain decency, a certain straightforwardness. Now the world, the New York commercial world, is a little bit extremely high tech, extremely sophisticated. A little shifty, if you will.”