40 Year Bleecker Street Resident Sells Leather Goods on His Home Turf
Most days on Bleecker Street, at its T-intersection with the north end of Morton, you can catch Don Girardi selling leather bags to the passersby on this busy Village thoroughfare. Don is a native New Yorker and has lived in Greenwich Village for most of his adult life. Once the owner of a leather store across the street from the very spot he sells his goods now, Don has lived upstairs in that same building for over 40 years.
As he tells his story, you get a feel for what it is like to adventure across the world while calling the Village your home.
Don was born in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn in 1930. "Where the Verrazano Bridge is," he elaborates. "That was all landfill. We watched the Belt Parkway being built . . . my old man used to take us down there"
Don's family ran a candy store around the corner from their house. "What fun that was! We made Italian ices, we made them in wooden tubs! It was packed in ice with rock salt around it." When the weather became cooler and Italian ices were less desirable, Don and his siblings would sell "cardboard containers with a slide of jelly roll covered with whipped cream called a ‘Charlotte Russe.’"
There were eight kids in the Girardi household - six daughters and two sons. "We all had friends, my mom would make pizza, it was an impromptu party every night."
When Don was 15, he crossed the bridge into Manhattan to go to school. He enrolled at Straubenmuller Textile High School at 351 West 18th Street where they "taught fashion art, commercial art [and] graphic art." He chose commercial art and graduated at 18. Don subsequently attended the New York Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences on Pearl Street in Brooklyn (now the New York City College of Technology).
"In 1950 the Korean War was already underway for about a year - I went to basic training at Fort Dix," Don continues, as if the war was part of his education. He recalls his 32-day trip from Brooklyn Army Basin to Korea and the antics that ensued.
"We were given duties. Ever hear of peeling potatoes? We had a machine dome with abrasive walls that would peel the potatoes."
Happy with his boring but easy job, things remained calm for the first half of the trip. "Then I was asked after two weeks to do deck duty." Don's tone makes it clear he was not OK with being assigned deck duty. "We almost mutinied!" He continues to describe how him and some of his shipmates became unruly.
The US Army, while stereotypically strict on the subject, must have liked him. "They locked me in a hole in the bottom of the ship - I ate bread and water for three days!” This is far better than the outcome of most mutineers in classic cinema. “First they gave me a medical exam to make sure I could survive on bread and water for three days. They were always looking out for us," Don remarks with a joyful sarcasm. "It didn’t stop me from going to the front line, though."
Don served his 3 days locked in the ship's hull. From the way he describes it, things were quite fair. "They had to let me out to go to Mass," he chuckled, "on the way back the mess hall would pass me some food."
It could be said that his rebellious nature aboard the ship had paid off. After his release, "they didn't really ask me to do anything." He grins mischievously. It is clear from Don's point of view that he came out the winner, and he may be right.
Finally the 32 day trip was complete. Upon arrival they "were processed and ran through a series of camps." Don pauses for a moment: "Then you found yourself in the back of a truck with a rifle in your hand."
"We were being sent in as a replacement," Don recalls. "It was dark, noisy, there were bombs going off." Don's positive attitude was key to his survival: "There was always some wise guy trying to tell you how bad it is," Don explains. "Then I look back and it turned out to be an adventure."
After six months of being stationed as infantry in Korea, a surprise twist of fate may have saved Don’s life. "An order came through saying that they wanted experienced men to go to Japan to pepper up the fresh troops." Don's officers gladly volunteered him for the program. "It was their way of getting rid of all the pains in the asses," he laughs.
Don served five months in Japan until he was given Red Cross Leave for a family emergency. "I was put on a plane at Tokyo Airport and was on there for 52 hours . . . the first leg of the trip was 9 hours to Wake Island, then 12 hours to Hawaii, then 13 hours to San Francisco, then another 13 hours across the US."
After the family emergency cooled down, Don reported to the local Army office. "At that time they wanted to reassign me to another infantry unit." By now Don had learned the only way to avoid getting killed was to take destiny into his own hands. "I said 'see those guys in there? I want their job!' So they gave it to me. I ended up typing at an office."
Don went home every weekend (Camp Kilmer was in New Brunswick, NJ). "They told me 'we're going to give this pass to someone else because you're gonna go AWOL anyway'." To add icing to the cake, after only three months of service at Camp Kilmer, Don was able to go home. "They said there was no point to send me back to Japan, so they discharged me."
Don celebrated by going down south and dancing to New Orleans Jazz on riverboats. "We had the benefit of modern jazz and traditional jazz - one played to your head, and the other one played to your gut." Don plays a sample of John Goldkette Orchestra.
In 1953 after his escapades down south Don returned to New York to put his education to use and pursue his career. "I freelanced on Madison Avenue as a graphic artist - what they called 'paste ups and mechanicals,' which Don explains was the work that became the final ad. You took the photographs, type, and everything, and assembled the final copy for the printing press - all advertising those days were done with a glue pot, razor blade, and a bristle board, all assembled into an ad." Don worked for the art studios, which in turn worked for the advertising agencies.
In 1957 Don's appetite for adventure inevitably returned. "I skipped out of Madison Avenue!" He made contact with a friend he met while down south, who was now living in Mexico City. The subject of Mexico City excites Don; he describes it as a paradise. "I lived close to Mexico City College on la Avenida de Ensorjentes (the insurgents) . . . This area was full of Americans, college students, expatriates - that’s where I ran into these guys. Everyone would make a bunch of money then stay in Mexico City as long as they could. I gave up a great work situation." The increased buying power of the American Dollar in those days certainly helped Americans. "A dollar a day, imagine that! You could buy a bottle of beer for 40 centavos - that’s half of 8 cents can you believe that?"
When it was time to make more money, Don and his friend visited a hiring hall in Cleveland. "We came back home for a few days then managed to get jobs on separate ships in the Great Lakes. I ended up washing dishes but got kicked off - my politics were always showing!" After the incident Don worked a couple weeks on the railroad, one more ship, then finally took a bus to Green Bay and flew back home.
Don returned to New York again and moved to Greenwich Village. "I always wanted to live in the village . . . I had a tiny little apartment on Minetta Street and a Moto Guzzi [motorcycle]." The Moto Guzzi, however, would lead to Don’s life changing forever.
"In 1959 6th Avenue used to go two ways. I was coming downtown - right there on the southwest corner of 6th and 17th street. This guy making a left turn ran into us. I saw this white light, an exquisite feeling, then I passed out. If that was the end, it was not such a bad ending, but that was not the end. I had to pick up the pieces of my life." By 1962 Don was fully out of the hospital after many setbacks and surgeries. "I had 12 operations there was so much debris in my leg."
In life one must take the good with the bad, and in Don's case the good most definitely came with the bad. "I was subletting my apartment and Margaret Braidwood answered the ad - we went out and i just moved back in. We were together for 8 years."
Don spent the next couple years enjoying life in the village. "There was a guy on West 4th at Jones Street. We met in 1964 and became friends, hung out, would drink, and during that time he taught me how to work with leather. By 1968 I had learned everything I needed to know."
In 1969 Don opened his first leather shop at 259 Bleecker, literally right across the street from where he sells his leather bags today. It was called "The Bag Man."
"I was selling leather by the ounce and by the pound on a fruit scale - it was a novel idea, you know? I was doing really well." Don also sold leather bags and other things he had made.
Margaret eventually returned to her native Scotland. Don, whose appetite for adventure was insatiable, didn't wait more than a few months to visit her.
"I arrived in Haymarket, London and bought a car for 300 bucks - a little Volkswagen - and drove all night up to Scotland, outside of Glasgow." On his way, Don picked up some hitchhikers on the quiet country road. "They were salmon fishermen," Don explains how in exchange for the lift he gave them, they went to their traps and pulled out a huge salmon for him.
Don finally arrived in Mure of Ord, Scotland. "If I drop dead right now, I wouldn't mind it," Don recalls feeling after driving all night only to see the beautiful fog in what is called a "glen" at the entrance of Mure of Ord. Don met Margaret, fish in hand, and they both had a delicious salmon dinner that evening. Don would go on to visit Maggie several more times in his life.
After two years at 259 Bleecker, Don moved his shop across the street to 268. With this new storefront would come a new opportunity. "One day this guy walked into my shop at 268 Bleecker. He said 'I make leather bags, I'm a tailor.'" Don was skeptical at first. "I told him make me a suit - so many people I had gotten involved with said they could make clothes, but couldn't. He made a beautiful suede suit."
Don was sold. "I told him he could set up shop in the back." This gentleman, named Germaine, quickly proved himself as a help around the business. Don, of course, saw this as an opportunity to do more adventuring. "I took my keys out of my pocket and said 'hey, do you want a store?' I’ll give you a whole store. I gave him the keys and went to Europe. I didn't come back for a whole year!"
"I went to go see Maggie again, came back to London looked up a friend from New York who was there, hung out in London for a while.”
One friend gave Don some advice that would reshape his journey through Europe: "He said you oughta get yourself an English taxi - they run on diesel and are great. So I located this taxi cab out of town - it was 300 dollars."
Don and his English taxi would go on to have some amazing adventures across Europe. "Everywhere I went, people thought I was working." Don chuckled. "It still said taxi on the top!"
One night, Don’s appetite for adventure and altruism converged to create a memory that would last a lifetime. "One time I picked up some people who were stuck in the rain, and didn't know where they wanted to go. Finally one guy asked 'are you a Yank?'" Don's cover was blown. Once his passengers realized he was not a real British taxi driver, who are notorious for having a map of the greater London area in their heads, they were cooperative in helping him reach their destination. "When I finally got them to where they wanted, I wouldn't take their money."
Don and his taxi cab were finally ready for some warmer, drier weather. "It was cold in the morning, the only way to start [the taxi] was by putting a blow torch under the hood," he recalls. "The next thing I know I'm taking an ad in a magazine called 'Time Out' for a couple of riders." Don wanted people to come along with him to share the costs, since putting the taxi on a ferry was expensive. "These two women show up and we get on this ferry boat called 'The Patricia' from Southampton to La Bilou, Spain.
"I took my taxi cab there and found a little fisherman's house and lived on the beach for a couple months. The guys renting beach chairs outside of a restaurant I used to frequent called me 'il fortunato' or 'the fortunate one.'"
Don eventually got a letter from Germaine, who said he wanted to do some travelling of his own. "It got old after a few months anyway," Don shrugs. "I came back to the states."
Don returned to the US and Germaine went on to travel Europe himself. He opened a leather shop in Cologne, Germany and had it for 20 years.
In 1973, two years after moving into the 268 Bleecker store, Don moved once again across the street to 259. This time, however, he moved into a different store (there are four store spaces at 259 Bleecker). Don finally sold the shop and settled down in 1976 and continued to live in the apartment above his former shop at 259 Bleecker.
Fast forward 28 years later, and Don is ready for adventure once more.
"I first started selling bags in front of Our Lady of Pompeii in 2004," he begins. "[My friend] told me he was getting his peddler's license, then took a bunch of bags and was able to sell them up on Columbus Circle . . . Then we started selling them on Prince Street."
"Finally I just started hanging them from the van and doing it that way - minimalism." Indeed, Don is doing very well with "minimalism." He still enjoys the benefit of working immediately downstairs from where he lives.
The quality of his work to this very day is undiminished as is his bright outlook on life.
Don's charisma will make you happy, the quality of his bags will amaze you, and when you look at the price tag, you will love him.
While he’s worth visiting just to talk to, his bags are truly of remarkable quality - a level of craftsmanship that can only come from 40 years of doing the same trade. On top of that, his “minimalism” policy also applies to his prices.
Don is part of a Greenwich Village that no longer exists, but still resides peacefully in the living memory of those who experienced it. Do yourself a favor and go talk to Don, there aren't too many old villagers like him left around.