After four decades, Murray Goldwag of Kosher Socks fame is still very much a presence, manning his store on Main Street in South Fallsburg
If you want it, he’s got it in his South Fallsburg store, where merchandise spills over the counter, and boxes full of goggles, spray bottles, and children’s toys line the walls. A presence for four decades now, summer just wouldn’t be the same without him
O nce upon a time bungalow colonies were filled with actual bungalows whose roofs leaked floors creaked and tubs rusted over. In those days if you needed to cool down in the hot summer air you sipped on an ice pop while fanning yourself under a tree. Way back when Dad would drive back to the city for work on a Monday morning leaving Mom and the kids car-less until he returned the following Friday.
Thus did a cottage industry of bungalow peddlers emerge. Once a week Hymie the Milkman Mom’s Kosher Knishes or Murray the Sockman would pull up on the front lawn with a van full of food or merchandise a traveling store on wheels. These visits were always eagerly anticipated by the colony dwellers who were happy to shop for a container of milk a potato knish or a new snood without having to move much more than 30 feet.
Times have changed of course. These days the site where Hymie Kanowitz’s Dairy once stood is occupied by Dougie’s Barbecue and Grill and Mom’s Knishes has morphed into Izzy’s Knish Nosh. Though he no longer makes house calls Murray Goldwag of Kosher Socks fame is still very much a presence still manning his store on Main Street in South Fallsburg.
“I miss the old days ” he says remembering the years when he peddled his wares. “We would hit three to four colonies a day and everybody loved us. But there was a lot of schlepping involved.” He sighs. “And my hair was getting whiter and whiter.”
Today, 72-year-old Murray’s hair is about as white as it’s going to get. But his quick wit and personable brand of salesmanship haven’t changed one bit.
Walk into the Kosher Socks store and you’ll wonder whether you’ve taken a time machine back to the 1970s. There’s merchandise everywhere — spilling over the counter, hanging on the racks, piled on the shelves, lined up in makeshift storage bins, and even hanging above your head. Random items seem to be haphazardly arranged in what can best be described as “controlled chaos.” Boxes line the walls along the perimeter of the store, most of them dog-eared and battered, but also clearly labeled: “Crib Sheets” in one, “Carriage Nets” in another, “Bottle Brushes” in a third. A display of high-tech-looking swimming goggles stands in middle of it all, a nod to the times.
“Hydro-specs,” he says. “Everybody wants them.”
Like his business, Murray himself has moved around a bit. Originally from Williamsburg, he also lived in Boro Park, and later relocated to Ellenville in upstate New York with his young family before moving to Long Island.
Today, Murray and Meryl are happily settled in Eretz Yisrael, on Derech Chevron Street in Jerusalem (“a 35-minute walk to the Kosel”). Three of their five children also live in Eretz Yisrael, including singing star Ari Goldwag, whose CDs are of course available for purchase at Kosher Socks.
Unlike their frenetic summers in South Fallsburg, Murray and Meryl slow down the pace when they return to Jerusalem, They attend Torah classes and spend lots of quality time with their children and grandchildren.
Anything You Need
But now it’s summer again, and a steady stream of customers walks in and out: a woman quieting her cranky baby, a group of teen girls checking out the sweatshirts, a young mother busy filling her camp list. There are also plenty of male customers, seeking items such as yarmulkes (how many of them wind up at the bottom of the lake?), tzitzis (“Every bar mitzvah boy has to wear an 18-by-18 shiur”), and shleikes (suspenders – all those knishes take their toll).
Murray is the ultimate multi-tasker. He can take a phone call (“Sir, our largest size pants is 55 inches”), greet a customer (“Vos machst du?”), negotiate with a gutsy mom (“It’s $18.95? Okay, I’ll give it to you for $18”), all the while posing for our photographer Amir and answering a reporter’s questions. He will also randomly burst into song (“My Yiddishe Momme…”), or tell someone a joke (“Did you hear about the guy…”). And always with that ever-present twinkle in his eye.
Despite the apparent balagan at the store, Murray and his wife Meryl seem to know the location of every item. During my visit, someone asks for a clipboard, a night light, a pair of boots, a lifeguard’s whistle (Fox 40 brand), and a lefty baseball glove — apparently a specialty item. Each of these somehow appear on the store’s counter within moments. It makes you wonder whether there’s more stuff in this narrow little shop than in the Walmart Supercenter just five miles down the road.
Murray explains that he wasn’t always a salesman. That’s just been his summer job. In fact, he was a high school math teacher for 30 years, and in the 1970s decided to hit the bungalow colonies in the summers selling ties, socks, and assorted other five-and-dime items summer vacationers need — laundry bags, rubber balls, flashlights, bathing caps, snoods, rain ponchos, underwear, fly swatters and cheap toys. His motto was, “If I don’t sell it, you don’t need it,” and customers were amazed by just how much stuff he packed into the back of his van to peddle around the colonies.
As a kid, Murray’s son Ari would join him on those forays around the Catskills, hitting three or four of the 200-or-so colonies in the region every day. “When I was little it was a chance to hang out with my dad, who was having a lot of fun and also providing a great service,” says Ari, who now lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh. “When I got older it was a way for me to make a little money too.”
From age nine, Ari was a star soloist with Miami Boys Choir, a fact not lost on the throngs who would gather around the long tables of wares set up alongside the loaded parked van. That was always a draw for the kids, who would gather around to see their favorite young singer in person and beg their parents for a few bucks to buy some cheap toys.
“I might have been a celebrity who sold a few yoyos,” says Ari, “but the real money was in the socks and snoods.”
Yet in addition to being exposed to commerce, Ari says the biggest lesson he learned from his dad on those “business trips” was about ahavas Yisrael. “We would set up shop in all the colonies, from the secular or very modern to the chassidish, and my dad just had this love for and language with everyone. Until today I try to implant that attitude in my music.”
Murray began selling his wares in the Catskills 41 years ago in what he describes as a “side job” that flourished into a business. Ten years later he moved his goods into the now-iconic storefront in South Fallsburg, although until just a few years ago, he continued to set up shop out of the back of his multi-purpose van as well.
Murray explains that the store was originally the location of a small kosher pizza shop that also sold ice cream. The sign over the entrance of the previous store read “Kosher Ice Cream.”
“We found out it was going to cost $900 to put up a new sign,” Murray says, “and that was a lot of money in those days.” Instead, he got creative. “I climbed up on a ladder and covered the words ‘Ice Cream’ with ‘Socks.’ And it’s been Kosher Socks ever since.”
The Goldwags are committed to doing chesed, so they help the local yeshivah community by offering them special discounts. But Murray doesn’t like to dwell on his charitable activities. Instead, he says he’s quite proud of the honesty and integrity of all of his customers. “Deep down I believe everyone is 100 percent ehrlich. Except for that one guy who wanted to pay me $100 in four installments — and in food stamps.”
Murray remembers one elderly customer who was particularly difficult and demanding. “She wanted a specific shade of gray socks. Both Meryl and I checked in the basement, but all we could offer her was off-black, and she refused to accept that. Then she complained about the price. I suggested that she shop elsewhere, but she showed up a year later, and started complaining again.”
Murray was beginning to get annoyed, until the woman rolled up her sleeve and showed him the numbers etched into her arm. “That changed everything. I realized that she was feisty because of what she had gone through to survive. And I appreciated that. She was a beautiful lady.”
Time to go Tech
The clientele has changed over the years. There is more call these days for black velvet kippahs than black leather ones, and more people own summer homes than in the past.
“I sell a lot of Kevlar tennis racquets,” Murray says. “Overall, the quality of the merchandise has increased dramatically. People are no longer just living in bungalows.”
The store’s had only one robbery over the years, and that was when someone broke in through the roof and walked out with a huge stock of men’s undergarments. “Eventually, the police found them selling the stuff on a street corner and confiscated the items.”
The busiest days of the summer, Meryl says, are camp visiting days, when the line of customers can snake across the length of the store. When that happens, Meryl admits, “We get a little flustered. But Murray entertains everybody while they’re waiting on line.” And somehow they all come back again next summer.
The old blends with the new at Kosher Socks, and that’s part of the charm. New this year is a display of fidget spinners situated near the cash register, even though Murray insists the fidget craze is ending. To make the point, he brings out an item that may as well be hanging in a museum.
“Who remembers these?” he asks. “They’re plastic nose guards, worn to protect the nose from sunburn.” Today, they’re hopelessly dated and old-fashioned. “I sell one or two every summer,” Murray says, “either to the elderly or to a Russian immigrant who comes in.”
Before Tishah B’Av, there’s the annual mad rush at the store for proper fasting footwear. But the demand for canvas sneakers has slowed considerably in favor of Crocs.
Murray is eager to share about the store’s new website, perhaps his most ambitious venture yet. Launched in May, the site offers an impressive selection of products and specializes in ready-made lists for students going off to learn in Eretz Yisrael. “Why schlep your linen from overseas,” he asks, “if you can order everything online and have it waiting for you when you get there?”
The website, run by his daughter Melissa who lives in the Israeli town of Chashmonaim, is the family’s hi-tech solution to what was an extremely labor-intensive aspect of their business.
“They would go to schools and do these pre-summer shows – everything you could possibly need for camp, and then give 10% of the gross to the school or organization,” says Ari Goldwag. “But it was a huge schlep. Last year my dad said, ‘I’m not doing this again.’ See, even the Sock Man went techie.”
The Sullivan County retail market too has changed dramatically over the years, most notably with the opening of the Walmart Supercenter. Has it affected his business at all? Murray dismisses the question by listing some local Sullivan County mega-stores that have closed their doors in recent times.
“Remember Sullivan’s Department Store? Well, we put them out of business. Remember Jamesway? We put them out of business. Ames? We put them out of business too.
“Walmart,” he says with his twinkle in his eye, “is next.”
It’s a brash statement coming from a guy whose tiny store is open barely three months a year. But he may be right. There’s something about the old-fashioned customer service, the warmth, the witticisms, and the endless supply of batteries, raincoats, and tzitzis that’s irresistible to the summer shopper.
If it were located in Brooklyn, with all the inherent pressure and stress that come with the territory, shoppers probably wouldn’t tolerate it for more than a day. But here in the Catskills, where the pace slows down, the customers love it.
And Murray, the quintessential people person, clearly loves what he does.
Is he even thinking about retiring anytime soon?
“All the time,” he says. “All the time.”
And then he moves on to the next customer.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 668)
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