January 31, 2016--Manhattan Saddlery is a nostalgic relic to many of those who drop in, reminiscing about their youth when it was Miller's saddlery.
But for owner Nick Tsang, the shop is a memorial to his mother. He wistfully recalls her standing at the counter, as he looks around New York City's last tack store.
I remember the time, not too many decades past, when Miller Harness Co., Kauffman's and M.J. Knoud were all doing business in the city. And then there was one...
It's probable that there wouldn't even be that one, though, had dressage enthusiast June Tsang not been shopping at Miller's (at that point renamed Copperfield's) on a day in 2002 when the shelves were looking bare and she asked why.
Nick is a little hazy on the details, but he thinks it went something like this:
"We're going out of business," she was told. After that came the question.
"Are you interested in buying the store?"
The attorney and pharmacist, with no experience in retail, walked out the door thinking about it, but by the time June reached the corner, she had the answer--"Yes."
June, Nick and his father, Ben, a cardiologist, had begun riding in the early 1990s because June thought it might be therapeutic for Nick's autistic older brother, Andrew. He and Ben lost interest. Nick still rode casually, competing in one show in his life. But June fell in love with dressage after riding at Footlight Farm in Roosevelt, N.J., and began buying horses until she had four of them. The store was another of her equine-related interests.
In 2007, she became ill and Ben said he was going to close the store. However, Nick, a Harvard University grad who majored in the history of science and works in real estate development, stepped up and said he would run the place until she got better. He knew how much it meant to her. But she never did get better and died in 2012.
Nick felt if the store went out of business it would sit vacant. With the subprime crisis looming, he realized the market for ground-floor retail real estate "wasn't going to be so hot."
More important, though, he said, "I've always had a love for historical preservation and the store itself is so integral to the history of the horse in New York."
He explained, "I focus on townhouses that are landmark-designated. That's my particular niche in real estate."
After his mother died, he said, "I can never close the store. I'm always going to be running this place, because it is so emotionally charged for me."
Besides, added, Nick, who also kept two of his mother's horses, "it's a really cool store and it's cool that it's in New York."
The old wooden Miller's sign still hangs prominently in the shop, which carries a wide range of expected, and unexpected brands, and includes polo gear as well. Nick has an international clientele. What rider would come from Latin America or Asia and not want to come by the city's only tack store?
Click on this video to hear Nick's thoughts about his shop.
On the day I visited, members of the Masters of Foxhounds Association also were invited to drop by for food, drink, discounts and a series of presentations. Those included talks by Emily Esterson, editor of the MFHA's Covertside magazine, fifth-generation Irish saddler Tom Berney and third generation master tailor Bob Ermilio.
Bob explained the details that go into custom-made hunt clothing (he said to insure the chest area of a hunt coat fits properly "with real expression," it has to be pressed 60 times.)
His wares, as one might expect, are pricey--but then again, you pay for value. Scarlet tailcoats, like those worn at the MFHA's ball at the Pierre Hotel Friday night (invitations read, "Scarlet if convenient), can range from $2,500 to $6,000. For some, however, the cost is no object.
He told the story about a woman in New Zealand who said she didn't look right in her sidesaddle habit.
Bob explained that the measurements for such an outfit must be taken while the rider is sitting in her saddle on her horse so the clothing hangs right. She invited him to come to New Zealand and fit her properly, but he couldn't make the trip, so he said he'd meet her halfway. The woman flew herself, her horse and her saddle to California, and he took her measurements there.
You've heard the expression, "clothes make the man." That also applies to side-saddle riders, apparently. She became a winner after she looked sharp.
Bob also made riding clothes for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. He told me an interesting story about her.
Click on the video to hear it.
That reminded me of the time I rode in a hunter pace, but was attending with a dual purpose--to do a story on Jackie, who was also competing. There I was in riding clothes, which was my camouflage, since she was not one to do an interview. When I popped up to speak to her, she was taken aback and very sweetly said, "Oh, am I in trouble?"
I never got the interview, but she did ask for photos from the photographer who was with me. They were sent along and in return, I got a thank you note from her that I have to this day.
Oh yeah, and my partner and I won the pace. When the trophy was presented at a post-pace party, my husband said Jackie had quite a surprised expression on her face.
In a way, the MFHA gathering seemed as incongruous in New York City as the saddlery, but there's actually a reason it's in the city, and of course, that has to do with tradition. I talked about that with Keith Gray, an honorary whipper-in of the Mill Creek hunt in Illinois, and a member of the MFHA board, as well as his daughters, Erin, 22, and Emiy, 24. Listen in on the conversation by clicking on this video.
Lt. Col. Dennis Foster, the group's executive director, is retiring next year, I was told, so I'm sure the 2017 convention will be quite an occasion in that regard.
I'm off to Florida to cover show jumping, eventing and dressage--all in the same weekend! Look for my next postcard Saturday night, and I'll have at least one more next Sunday.