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This Upper West Side appetizing shop stands apart by standing still

(New York Jewish Week) — Paul Klausner, a native Upper West Sider, has clear memories of shopping with his mother as a young boy at Murray’s Sturgeon Shop, a store on Broadway and 89th Street known for smoked fish. In Klausner’s family, when it came to buying lox and all the fixings, Murray’s was the place.

Now, some 60 years later, Klausner is still a devoted fan. Although he no longer lives in Manhattan, his beloved Murray’s remains very much the same as the Murray’s of his childhood — in fact, little has changed there since it first opened in 1946. As for Klausner, he and his wife, April Stewart Klausner, keep their freezer in Litchfield County, Connecticut, stocked with Murray’s sliced center-cut nova, which they pick up whenever they are in the city.

In the changing retail world now dominated by chain stores and online shopping, Murray’s is a unicorn. Even among other renowned, longstanding New York appetizing stores like Barney Greengrass, Zabar’s and Russ & Daughters, Murray’s stands apart by standing still. Except for one short move in the 1940s — half a block uptown to its present location — it has always occupied the same tiny piece of real estate. Throughout its 77 years of existence, Murray’s has never expanded its brick and mortar store, nor have its owners opened an adjacent restaurant or cafe. It is a small, narrow slip of a shop, more similar in size to a subway car than a food emporium.

“We are one of the oldest continually running stores on Broadway,” said 65-year-old Ira Goller, the third owner of the shop. “There is nothing else like this anywhere.”

Numerous aspects make Murray’s stand out — the lack of in-store seating, for one, as well as the care in which every customer’s order is hand-filled. Varieties of smoked fish are sliced with surgeon-like precision — so finely that each piece is practically transparent — and, perhaps most notably, said fish is wrapped, origami-like, in heavy white waxed paper, never plastic.  Wax paper “absorbs any oils and grease,” said Goller. “If you put the appetizing in a little plastic bag, it is not fresh in a day or two.”

At Murray’s, the smoked fish is still sliced by hand and wrapped in wax paper. (Talia Siegel)

Stewart Klausner describes the shop as “stepping into a time machine where there’s a real connection between merchant and customer.” The countermen, who greet each customer warmly, have all been at Murray’s for at least 10 years. Ecuador-born, Yiddish-speaking Oscar Leon, whom Goller considers his right-hand man, is now in his 45th year. “It’s a family here,” Leon told the New York Jewish Week.

Even the decor is nearly the same as it always was: stainless-steel refrigerators and counters, mirrored side wall, tilework from the 1940s. Of course, over the years, there’s been some nods to modernity: A clock that hangs on the back wall was installed in the 1960s, and somewhere along the way, air conditioning was installed. These days, Murray’s has an online presence — and the store takes many phone orders, especially since the pandemic — but about half of its business is from people who walk in, Goller said.

One regular customer is 54-year old baker Jen Daniels. “Despite the fact that it is actually kind of old, it is immaculate,” Daniels told the New York Jewish Week. “You could eat off the floor there, it is so clean.”

Goller, who previously worked as a Wall Street commodities analyst, bought the store in 1990 from Artie Cutler, founder and owner of several popular Upper West Side eateries, including Artie’s Deli, Ollie’s Noodle Shop and Carmine’s Italian Restaurant. Cutler took over Murray’s in 1974 from the original owners and founders, brothers Sam and Murray Bernstein.

In passing the torch, Cutler stipulated that Goller would find a partner with experience in the food business. There was also an understanding that nothing would be changed in the first year.

After that 12-month learning period, Goller untethered himself from his partner and got to work making a few — just a few! — changes, with an eye on the bottom line. “I had notes to pay, mortgages to pay, mouths to feed,” Goller recalled. No longer would the store be closed on Mondays, as were so many of the stores on Broadway in the 1980s, when Monday was considered the slowest day of the week. Going forward, Murray’s would be open 363 days a year — the store closes only on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur.

Although previous owners shut the store during the eight days of Passover, Goller decided to keep it open, and even to sell bagels over the holiday, during which the consumption of bread is forbidden. Goller said he knew he made the right decision when a longstanding customer came in during Passover, wagged his finger at him for selling bagels — and then purchased a dozen.

All of the fish is smoked according to Goller’s specifications in a local smokehouse; the soups and salads are made in house. The food emerges from the tiny kitchen at the rear of the long, narrow shop. It’s not much to speak of: There’s a walk-in refrigerator — for storing pickles; matjes, schmaltz and pickled herring, coleslaw and smoked fish — and a 36-inch electric Garland oven with four burners, used for making soups made from recipes passed on to Goller by his mother-in-law. The crumb cake, baked apples and dairy noodle pudding are baked in that single oven. You won’t even find a dishwasher —  everything is hand washed.

While waiting for their orders, customers might overhear the sound of music — what’s perceived as a steady beat is actually the sound of onions being hand-chopped. What you won’t hear is the sound of a food processor: When making whitefish salad, the cooks use tweezers to pluck out the bones from the smoked fish, then crush it by (gloved) hands so that chunks of fish remain in the finished product.

All the salads at Murray’s are made in-house. (Talia Siegel)

Perhaps the biggest change Goller made was in 1995, when he decided to add sliced deli meats to Murray’s menu. “You would have thought I shot the pope,” he joked. “It was the first thing I did that caused an uproar.” The kerfuffle eventually died down, and now, alongside creamed herring, lox and Waldorf salad, items like sliced roast beef and turkey breast are available. All of the meat is kosher and sliced on a dedicated meat slicer so that, in deference to the laws of kosher food, there is no mixing of meat and dairy. (There is no ritual oversight in the store other than Goller, who takes the kashrut of the place seriously.)

But you don’t have to keep kosher — or even be Jewish — to love Murray’s. ”When I first came here, 95% of the customers were Jewish,” Goller told the New York Jewish Week. “Now it’s probably 70%.”

He credits Russ & Daughters, in part, for this expansion of Ashkenazi appetizing foods into the general, and younger, population. “Russ & Daughters has introduced people to bagels, lox and cream cheese,” he said. “Exposure of this type is good for everybody.”

The post This Upper West Side appetizing shop stands apart by standing still appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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