Honoring a woman who sought the fair way
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Honoring a woman who sought the fair way

For Cynthia Glickberg, family business was just the beginning

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Randi, Cynthia, and Howard Glickberg at the Harlem Fairway.

For decades, there was just one Fairway.

It opened in Manhattan in the early 1950s, soon after World War II ended, the GIs came home, and the economy exploded with energy and possibilities.

One of the fabled Upper West Side markets, it attracted the Upper West Side’s sui generis mix of heavily accented Jewish and other immigrants; old leftys, stalwart and smug in their rent-controlled apartments; and, a bit later, urban pioneers, venturing across- and uptown to live and, therefore, shop in what was still a not-quite-safe neighborhood. The store, with its narrow aisles, the antithesis of today’s gleaming suburban supermarkets, was a landmark, a beacon of hope – or at least a purveyor of good produce and sophisticated cheese – in a time when limp lettuce, soggy tomatoes, and bright orange American reigned.

Even though the 1960s and 70s were not easy decades for New Yorkers, that Fairway flourished and grew. It expanded into the stores around it until it took up an entire city block, between 74th and 75th streets on Broadway.

Next, in 1993, Fairway opened a store at the edge of the Hudson River in West Harlem, a huge and idiosyncratic place that features, among many gourmet delights, a cold room so frigid that customers are offered huge warm coats to shrug on above their own clothing. On the edge of the city, it is a short run across the bridge from Bergen County. Until just a few years ago, Fairway aficionados in New Jersey had to content themselves with that store.

Now, there are 13 Fairways, including one in Paramus, another in Woodland Park, and a third set to open in Nanuet, in neighboring Rockland County, N.Y. Each shares the ethos of the original, but adds something from the community it serves.

Although the business is no longer simply family owned, all of these Fairways sprang from the hard work, creativity, and entrepreneurial gumption of its founding couple, Leo and Cynthia Glickberg.

Cynthia Glickberg, now a widow, lives in Fort Lee.

She has been active in charity work. For many years, she was a volunteer for Cancer Care. “I worked very hard and raised a lot of money,” she said. “I rose through the ranks as volunteer and became a regional president.” Also an active member of ORT both in New Jersey and in Florida, where she keeps a second home, she is about to be honored by that organization, a Jewish nonprofit whose mission is to provide education and training around the world.

Both her children work in the business; her son, Howard, who had been CEO, is now vice chairman of development; her daughter, Randi, is vice president of customer and community relations. The Harlem Fairway sits at the northern end of a parking lot that might be considered fairly small in northern New Jersey, but is huge for Manhattan, and Randi’s office, in an old building at the southern end of that lot, unnoticeable until you look for it, has been stripped down to the original brick and features a bright skylight far overhead.

Sitting in that office last week, Cynthia Glickberg talked about her life.

Cynthia Yagoda was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1926; her father, Isidor, was born in Poland; her mother, Sadie Stepper, the daughter of Russian-born immigrants, was a native New Yorker.

Her father drove a taxi at first, but then he opened a manufacturing business. His product was stuffed animals. “He used to bring home panda bears and elephants,” his daughter remembered.

The family’s Jewish connections were not particularly strong. “My father would say that he didn’t believe in anything,” she said. “My mother’s family was religious, and my father’s brother was very religious, but I think that my father had had enough of it.”

Still, the family observed the holidays and maintained its ties to Yiddish culture. “I learned Yiddish – my grandfather made me – and my family took me to every Second Avenue play there was.”

Second Avenue was home to the Yiddish Theater, then in its heyday. “I saw every star there was to see,” she said, listing Menashe Skulnik, Molly Picon, Leon Fuchs, and Boris Thomashevsky as the few who came first to her mind. She learned to sing the songs she heard onstage. “Years ago, children didn’t have sleepovers,” she said. “You had to make your own fun.

Glickberg went to Eastern District High School in Brooklyn; she was skipped, and graduated at 16. And then, she said matter-of-factly, “I went to work.

“That was the mindset then,” she continued. “My father really felt that I should go to college, but my mother said ‘What do you mean college? She’s going to work.'” She got jobs as a bookkeeper. “I learned to do that in high school,” she said. “Then, when you went to high school, you took commercial classes, typing, bookkeeping – those kinds of classes.”

But her life was about to change.

When she was 16, soon after she graduated from high school, Glickberg’s parents divorced. That was unusual in that time and place, although perhaps it might have been foreshadowed – she didn’t know where her parents had met, because “they never talked about a courtship, or anything like that,” Glickberg said. “I thought it was very strange. Still, “I didn’t mind,” she said. “Everybody pitied me, but I was happy.

There was a reason for that.

Cynthia Yagoda had met Leo Glickberg. “He was 22,” she said. Although he lived on the Upper West Side, members of his extended family owned the Bel Air, a hotel in the Catskills. That’s where Cynthia and Leo met. But he was in the Army – the war already had begun – and soon after that first meeting he had to return to his base in Arizona. Less than a year later, the young couple married.

The wedding, at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, “was a joke,” she said. “It was so big. It was a big, big wedding. And I was so very young.”

How big was it? “The cantor was Richard Tucker, the opera star,” she said.

“My in-laws wanted a wedding, and my father – I think it was out of guilt, because he’d just gotten divorced – made us a humongous wedding.”

She took to marriage. “Getting married at 17 – I don’t think you have a brain in your head,” she said. “But he raised me very well.”

The very young couple moved to Dalhart, Texas; Leo Glickberg was an Air Force sergeant, his widow said, and his job was processing recruits on their way overseas. “It was terrible,” Cynthia Glickberg said. “It was a small town. I will never forget the dust. It blew through the closed windows, onto the windowsills. And here I was, a sheltered 17-year-old.”

Next, Leo Glickberg was stationed in Gulfport, Miss., and then he was sent overseas, and his young wife went back to New York. He went to Saipan in the South Pacific, but did not arrive until the war had ended. “He was on the boat, on his way over, when the bomb was dropped,” Cynthia Glickberg said.

Once he was demobilized, the couple took up residence with his mother; apartments were hard to come by as hordes of GIs streamed home. Eventually they moved out, first to Riverdale and then to Dobbs Ferry, and their two children were born.

Meanwhile, the Glickbergs had to decide how to support themselves. His father, Nathan Glickberg, owned three small produce stores on the Upper West Side. Leo was an accountant, with a degree from NYU, but the stores needed a buyer – so Leo became a buyer. The stores flourished.

In 1951, the model that had worked for so long in the city – many small stores, each with its own specialty – was beginning to break down. That’s when the family decided to open Fairway, buying out the individual suppliers, the butcher and the baker, to create a one-stop proto-supermarket.

The name came from Isidor Yagoda, via his daughter. “His company, the stuffed toys, was called Fairway Novelty,” she said. “The business was successful. So when we opened the market, we were looking for a name, and I said, ‘You know, my father made a lot of money with Fairway.”

“It was a very difficult time,” Cynthia Glickberg said. “My father-in-law was not attuned to doing this. In order to open it, we had to study from books, and also go to other markets and see what they were doing. But there weren’t very many markets – there were very few supermarkets in general – so we had to go around a lot to find them. But we had to figure out what to order – at the beginning, my husband really only knew produce.”

She was an active participant. “I would take all the grocery orders and put them in the book for the wholesaler, and bring them to the wholesaler twice a week,” she said. “When Randi was born, we had no one to take the cash in the grocery. I had just had a Caesarean, but I had a baby nurse, so I used to go down every night and take the cash and close the register.

“Someone had to do it.”

A few years earlier, when her son was born, and they still had the smaller stores, “I was the bookkeeper; I did the books, and from there I went to give birth to my son.

“It was not unusual. At that time, you either helped or you fell by the wayside. I never thought about it. We had to do what we had to do.”

In the early 1970s, when their daughter went off to college, her parents sold the business. “I was so shocked,” Randi Glickberg said. “I said, ‘What do you mean you sold the business?’ My father was only 49 years old.

“But it was very hard work. He would go in every day; half a day on Sunday.

“There is so much perishable inventory,” she continued. “People don’t always realize how much work it is, how much attention you have to pay, how much of it is hands-on. You really have to be there all the time.”

Her parents had had enough.

But then the people to whom they sold the store failed. “We had the lease. We had to take it back,” Cynthia Glickberg said. “And we felt obligated.

“We had all these people working at the store. If we closed, they’d be out of a job, and they wouldn’t be able to get other jobs that easily.

“You don’t want to fail the people who helped you.”

So they took the store back, their son joined them there, and it was then that the Fairway of today began to take shape.

Cynthia Glickberg also went back to work. “I was running the office, counting the money, and watching everything that went on,” she said. “We had to watch everything to make money at that point. You had to be alert, to see what was going on.”

The 74th street store expanded until it was out of room, and Leo Glickberg retired again, this time for keeps. “My son came into the business, with two partners, and he’s the one who really expanded it,” Cynthia Glickberg said. The West Harlem store opened in 1993, and for years there were just the two stores. That same year, Leo Glickberg died, and his widow moved to Fort Lee.

“It was a leap, opening this store,” she said.

“My father said that if you don’t grow, you die,” Randi Glickberg added. She joined the family business in direct response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. She had been the deputy director of the Yeshiva University Museum – her training was in history, but more recently she returned to graduate school for an MBA. Both of those degrees work well for her at Fairway, she said.

There are differences between the stores, she continued. Most obviously, the city stores offer smaller size items than the suburban ones; there is no room to store large packages either in the stores or in consumers’ homes. Beyond that, areas with large Jewish communities stock up on kosher foods. “We just opened our own kosher catering kitchens in New Jersey,” she said.

“We always have seen the kosher community as very distinct, and as often underserved with good food. It’s been a motivation for Fairway to develop its capacity in the meat and bakery departments.”

An expansion that both mother and daughter in some ways find more challenging than Fairway’s move into the suburbs is its incursion into Manhattan’s Upper East Side; that store, too, opened recently. “I think that if my father-in-law could have known that we would open a store there, he would say, ‘Who goes to the East Side?'” Cynthia Glickberg laughed.

Although the stores are no longer family-owned, she still is immensely proud of them, of its expansion, and of her children. “It’s a reflection on them more than on me,” she said. “They are both hard workers, they both do good jobs, and that’s what I’m proud of.

“The material things that come with Fairway – after a while they don’t mean anything. But having good children and being proud of them – that, I think, is my greatest accomplishment.”

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