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    The Used Machinery Business, Past and Present

    By Lloyd Graff

    (taken from Screw Machine World magazine, with thanks to "just south of North Pole" Stan for the link)



    They bought the little storefronts on Lake Street in Chicago, Centre Street in New York, and Sante Fe in Los Angeles. Rickety buildings with low ceilings and roofs that leaked. Little communities of hardened, driven, clever men; one flatbed north of the junk dealers who sometimes sold them barely-breathing iron hulks.

    I knew these men, and their sons, and their sons' sons. They were crude guys, sometimes shady. They talked in accents, smoked cigars, played poker, bribed purchasing agents and found them broads. These guys were the pioneers of the used machinery business.

    They had nicknames like Cockeyed Charlie and Crazy Louie. They partnered deals and bickered over the profits while belching over lunch at the neighborhood delicatessens. If things were slow at the joint, they'd get together for a game of poker at 2:30. Merchandising was sticking a Bridgeport in the window. You screwed these men at your peril, but they all did it to one another.

    Business was like boxing. You battered your opponent. You smacked him hard, knocked him down, broke his nose, and then hugged the bloody bastard and bought him schnapps. They were a tough lot, these machinery dealers of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

    The business has changed today. Dealers wear ties; some even choose not to wear them. They are civil, occasionally charming, but it's an aging lot that I saw at the Machinery Dealers National Association (MDNA) convention in Chicago at the end of April.

    "I sold my first machine when I was ten," said Michael Berliner, a veteran of the industry, now working for Freemarkets.com. He sold the machine to his grammar school for demonstration purposes. "Today they'd buy a computer. In the 1950's, they picked up a lathe."

    “Some of the old dealers made fortunes. Today you can earn a nice living, but it’s tough business,” said Berliner.

    The used machinery business grew up to meet the needs of smaller companies who lacked the capital to buy new machinery. As the United States industrialized in the 1920’s and 1930’s, a need grew for some kind of distribution of cheap machine tools for companies that needed equipment quickly, cheaply, or both.

    Enter the entrepreneurs who saw opportunity in the marketplace. They bought up the discards of the bigger factories. Some started small emporiums where they displayed their iron in the window. In cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, the dealers congregated on the same streets so shoppers could arrive by train or car and walk down Lake Street, Centre Street, or Sante Fe and find the milling machine, or lathe, or shaper they needed to make their products.

    As America came out of the Depression, demand for machinery picked up both in the United States and Europe. Some manufacturers in England saw World War II coming. They needed equipment for building the implements of war, but England couldn't make the machine tools fast enough. American builders were trying to gear up for domestic demand. The British tapped into the nascent American used machinery market.

    A dealer by the name of Louie Emerson capitalized on the British effort. He bought up vast quantities of American machine tools and made a tidy fortune for himself by shipping them to England.

    The American used machinery business came to be dominated by Jewish men, most of whom were immigrants - or the sons of immigrants - from Eastern Europe. Their customers tended to be the descendants of Germans, Swedes, Irish, and Italians who went into engineering and machining.

    I grew up on stories about the people in the industry. My father, Leonard Graff, got into the business from the scrap iron side. His father, Louis Graff, made a living as a junk dealer. Louis did not have a yard, but he had a couple of trucks and a handful of regular customers. My father graduated from the University of Chicago in 1938 and interviewed with Procter and Gamble because their new hires received a car - but he didn't make the cut. He joined his dad in the scrap business and quickly learned that his father's business was based on charm and chicanery. As a little guy who had to sell his material to a bigger yard, Louis had to buy cheap to make any money. He possessed a third grade education, but he was a big, warm, charismatic guy. His customers loved him. Unfortunately, he had to cheat them to survive in the cutthroat commodity business he was in. Louis paid his customers by the pound. The less weight counted, the less money his customers got, and the more profit for Louis. Clever ruses were perpetrated to jimmy the scales. Tires filled with water were smuggled into the trucks before the drivers came into the factory so the trucks would be heavy when they were initially weighed. The water was dumped before they hit the scales on the way out.

    My grandfather lived in mortal fear that his little scam would be found out by the customers who so enjoyed dealing with him - the gentle junk man who could barely sign his name.

    So my father Leonard came into the business as a graduate of one of the world's renowned universities, a man who had studied the Great Books. And now he had to learn how to cook the books.

    Leonard Graff wanted out of the scrap business after finding out how the game was played. He quickly developed an expertise in junking defunct ice cream making plants, and in the process got to know a successful machinery dealer, Isaac Blumberg (and his sons, Eli and Harold), who owned Adams machinery.

    The Blumbergs invited my father into a deal in Iola, Kansas to evaluate the scrap component of the factory. They chartered a plane, and on the ride down to Kansas they bragged about how much money they were making in the machinery business. This was just before World War II, so the market was heating up.

    My father hated the trickery of the 'scrappies'. His father had died in 1940 of a heart attack, and he felt that all the lying Louis had done to his customers had hastened his death. When he listened to the Blumbergs talk about big numbers, he vowed to himself to exit the scrap business as soon as he possibly could.

    Ironically, Leonard's father had laid the groundwork for him by giving him a hardbound used machinery catalogue from the king of the used machinery dealers, Emerman Machinery. Louis Graff had discovered the little red book in a desk he had bought at an auction in 1938. The catalogue had photos, descriptions, and prices of machine tools from 1935. Leonard figured that if he could buy machines like the ones in the pictures at 1935 asking prices, he couldn’t miss.

    After selling off his father's trucks and borrowing $5,000 from the Chicago City Bank, he hit the road looking for the machinery in the Emerman red book. As soon as he bought a piece, he would call the Blumbergs or another established Chicago machinery dealer to wholesale the machine. A used machine dealer was born.

    The machinery business of the 1940’s and 1950’s followed the business cycles which followed the ups and downs of war and recovery. Many young men got into the business after the war selling off U.S. Government-owned machine tools on a commission. It required very little capital and the Government had mountains of equipment to sell. Many people expected another depression after World War II, but the pent-up demand of the returning veterans fueled a postwar boom.

    The young machinery dealers vied for business with the established dealers who did business the old-fashioned way. Graft, collusion, and bid rigging were the modus operandi of business for the old guys. The young guys were certainly not virgins, but there was a cultural divide between the college-educated, battle-toughened war veterans and the street smart, depression-hardened crew that preceded them.

    Geographical differences also sprang up. The New England dealers seemed like old Yankees with a veneer of gentility. Wigglesworth of Boston, J.L. Lucas, and Fairfield Machinery were renown for integrity, stability, and knowledge of machinery. Botwinik Brothers of New Haven, Connecticut rose to prominence in the 1950’s and 1960’s, only to have the brothers die off regularly afterwards. The story is told of Sam Botwinik, who left high school in New Haven and vowed to come back a success. One of his teachers had told him he'd be lucky to end up as a pants presser. A few years later, Sam drove up to his old high school in a brand new, chauffeur-driven Cadillac to inform that same teacher that he had just bought the assets of the company that made the pants pressers.

    The dealers in the 1950’s were known for gambling. In Chicago, if it was a slow day, a poker game would usually form at one of the storefronts on Lake Street. Austin Lucas, now in his late eighties and still buying and selling machinery, told me at the last MDNA convention (Machinery Dealers National Association) that at conventions of that era, the guys would often start a craps game in the bathroom while the meetings were going on. Local chapter meetings were perfunctory affairs. The real action took place during backroom card games after formal meetings.

    The backroom was also where the real business was done after auction sales.

    In the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, the machinery auction business was refined. Machinery was no longer being sold one piece at a time. Whole plants were being liquidated regularly as the pace of business speeded up in North America. Auctioneers like the Kriser brothers (Sidney and Leonard, who owned Industrial Plants), Norman Levy of Detroit, David Weisz of Los Angeles, and the Rabins of San Francisco developed dealer networks that enabled them to assess and buy whole factories for liquidation on an almost weekly basis. These men were big risk takers for their time, but they hedged their bets by taking in partners who could put machines that did not hit the required number at the auction into their inventory for future sale at retail prices. The auction, which was heralded as an honest bidding brawl, was really an orchestrated event that protected the auctioneer.

    The dealers who were not a part of the owning clique of an auction would often form ad hoc buying consortiums - called 'rings' - at the auction sales to combat what they saw as a bidding process rigged against them. They would then have their own auction after the sale. Auctions were a slightly civilized form of jousting tournaments. Going to an auction was like going into combat.

    The auctions in the late 1980’s and well into the 1990’s were true theater. Fortunes were made and lost in one day. Great auctioneers on the stand, like a Stanley Friedman of David Weisz Co., could sense a hot bidder by the glint in his eye. It was a common joke at an auction to say that "all it takes is two bidders to make a sale," to which an auctioneer would remark, "for me, it only takes one."

    The hostility between dealers and auctioneers became more pronounced with the clever introduction of the buyer's premium in the 1980’s. The buyer's premium was a tax on the purchases, usually kept by the auctioneer as a fee. Since the auctioneer was often a participant in the deal, the buyer's premium was a nice cushion.

    I think that the buyer's premium drove a deeper rift between the auctioneers and their natural customers, the machinery dealers. Before the buyer's premium, the auctioneer's fee came out of the seller's take on a deal - if there was any fee at all. Dealers and auctioneers competed to buy a deal on a more equal footing. With the buyer's premium, auctioneers became more insulated from the selling price of the machinery. They had their fee built into the deal so that even if a deal brought a break-even price, they still recouped their expenses with a profit.

    One of the most important trends in the used machinery business has been specialization. Since the 1940’s, the number of dealers with a narrow focus on the type of equipment they handle has grown significantly.

    Graff-Pinkert was one of the earliest niche players. In 1942, with World War II in full swing, Leonard Graff knew he would be drafted very soon. Just married, with his 2-year old business doing well, and a profound fear of getting killed in the trenches, he looked for a way out of the Army. Going into the screw machine business was the ticket. He found some Model G Gridley's and set up shop in an old pickle factory on the south side of Chicago. Why screw machines? His father had had a few screw machine shops as clients. The owners were boozers and not very shrewd at assessing the value of their scrap, but they bought new Parkards every year. Louis Graff told his son that running a screw shop couldn't be that tough, a lesson that Leonard remembered when he was looking desperately to avoid a uniform.

    Leonard Graff quickly set up the shop, hired his cousin Aaron Pinkert, a lawyer, to help him run it, and began hunting for machinery to buy and sell in his spare time. Getting contracts to run parts for the war effort was easy. Graff and Company soon was up to 80 people and running 24 hours a day to make the tools of war. Leonard was doing good by doing good. The shop prospered. He and Aaron avoided the draft and learned about running Acme Gridley's, Davenports, and New Britains.

    They continued in the screw machine business until 1949, when a recession hit the nation. Leonard and Aaron had lived through the Depression in their formative years. They feared that a new one was coming. They had made a lot of money and were worried about losing it. So they liquidated the shop in 1949, six months before the beginning of the Korean War. They sold 1" Model 60 New Britains for $3,000 each. Six months later, back in the machinery business, they were buying them back for $12,000. They went back into the used machinery business because they were familiar with it and it suited their mindset more than manufacturing. Leonard Graff loved buying and selling. He loved deals. Even though he had made a lot of money in the screw machine business, he didn't like the 24-hour grind and the wear and tear of dealing with a lot of employees. The joy of making parts eluded him.

    But he figured he knew automatics, he understood the jargon, and he had contacts in the industry, so he might as well concentrate on the used screw machine market.

    Back in the early 1950’s, there was little competition in screw machines. Roy Beaver in Chicago focused on Brown and Sharpes. Max Noble in New York also did single spindles, along with Bill Currier. Ivan Doverspike was starting up in Detroit. The field was not picked over.

    Other specialties developed in the machinery business. Joe Weiss dominated the press business at Interstate Machinery in Chicago. J.L. Lucas was strong in cold heading out in Bridgeport. Michael Goldstein led Cadillac Machinery into the gear machinery business.

    The great challenge of the machinery business was always in the buying. What do you pay for a used Acme, or Cincinnati OM centerless, or Minster 120 ton Piecemaker? If you could buy the machine cheap, you could always sell it for a profit. But what was cheap?

    The used machinery market is a classic imperfect market. A myriad of variables - such as condition, age, market timing, manufacturer, attachments, size, technological change, and location - all affect the value of a particular machine at a given moment. Unlike the used car market, which has a Blue Book that gives approximate values of most cars, the used machinery market is a cloudy mystery to most buyers.

    The specialized used machinery dealer developed an advantage over his competitors and his customers by first building his own private blue book of data on a particular category of machinery and then developing a customer base of companies that needed the equipment he traded in.

    Another trend in the machinery business, which started in the 1960’s and continues today, is the globalization of the marketplace. Globalization of the used machinery trade goes back to the 1930’s, when the English hurriedly tried to beef up their machine tool stock by importing used machines from wherever they could get them. After World War II, particularly in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a lot of machinery that had been shipped to Europe during the 1940’s and early 1950’s came back to the United States - mainly from England. Phillip Norton of England made a million British pounds by buying machines cheap from the British Ministry of Defense and packaging them for eager American dealers.

    The Mexican market has been an up and down buyer of American used machinery, but South America has been a total non-factor for most North American dealers. European dealers, who have a smaller natural trading arena in their native countries, have been much more aggressive in cultivating third world trade in used machinery.

    The vast North American marketplace of manufacturers has been enough to satisfy most American dealers. Most machinery dealers are small, family-run affairs that define their company's business narrowly.

    There are very few mergers in the machinery business. Businesses are rarely sold. When the owners die or retire without heirs to take over the operation, the inventory is liquidated and the business vanishes.

    One of the few machinery businesses to change hands without disappearing is Perfection Machinery of Elk Grove Village, Illinois. Sid Lieberstein built the business, which specialized in metalforming machinery. Sid's children were not interested in the business, but his two very able assistants, David Muslin and Patrick Angus, were eager to take over.

    Lieberstein concocted a multi-year buyout plan in which Muslin and Angus paid out Sid from the profits and borrowings. Lieberstein continued to work extremely hard, and the business succeeded enough to make the younger men owners and Lieberstein liquid. This type of foresight has been rare in the used machinery business.

    It is obvious that the business is changing in the Internet age. The MDNA was started 60 years ago by Thomas Scanlan Sr., the publisher of Surplus Record Magazine, and Harold and Eli Blumberg, the second generation of leaders at Adams Machinery.

    Tom Scanlan, Jr., Thomas Scanlan's grandson, was at the MDNA convention still representing Surplus Record. Tom sold the publication a couple of years ago to Freemarkets.com for $17 million. Freemarkets wanted his database, knowledge, and stature in the metalworking industry. The fact that his company made money didn't hurt, either. Tom says he took the money because his siblings, who do not work at Surplus Record, forced him to. He says he would have preferred to stay independent.

    Adams Machinery was represented by Tony and Vince Blumberg, the fourth generation of Blumbergs. Adams was named after the downtown Chicago street where the company started, but it is still located at the big warehouse on the Northside of Chicago, which it has occupied for 50 years.

    These two companies embody the American used machinery business. Surplus Record has diligently served the used machinery dealers for more than 60 years. Tom Jr. knows every dealer, understands the business' nuances, listens well, and leverages the Internet. While other publications dawdled, Scanlan invested in the Internet hardware and software and developed a Spanish language adjunct publication. When the dotcoms came calling, he had his act together. Scanlan still runs Surplus Record from his offices at the Civic Opera House Building in Chicago, where his grandparents started the business 87 years ago.

    Adams Machinery is run by Jerry Blumberg, Harold Blumberg's son, a third generation dealer. His first cousin, Jimmy Blumberg, a charismatic dealmaker, retired to the Bahamas in his fifties to go fishing.

    Jerry and Jimmy's grandfather started Adams in 1912. He made his money and decided to go into horse racing, of all things. He laughed at the blueblood racing establishment by owning a Kentucky Derby winner and a Derby runner-up within five years, naming them both after streets in Miami Beach - Lincoln Road and Venetian Way. Jerry and Jimmy's fathers were tough machinery dealers, but also became philanthropists. But Adams Machinery goes on. They have a great customer base and a bunch of hardworking Blumbergs beating the bushes. But the traditional used machinery business is a tough one today.

    The cloudy, imperfect market that machinery dealers loved has been illuminated a little by the Internet. User to user contact has been enhanced through the web. Online auctions have popularized auction buying, and more big companies are using this approach to sell their equipment. Aggressive selling of new machinery - particularly imports - now competes strongly with used. Micro specialists, dealers who know a tiny niche of the market very well, compete vigorously with bigger dealers.

    It makes it a tough world for dealers like Adams, and especially for dealers who lack the same capital and commitment.

    But used machinery dealers will survive. Those that add value for the customers while honoring the bottom line will prosper. The poker games in the back rooms of Lake Street are history, but the commandments of “buy low, sell high” and “turn the inventory” live on.

    Email Lloyd at [email protected]

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    I would like to thank Lloyd Graf for posting this history. I am surpirsed that there has been no comment on it.

    We who mess with machine tools or are audacious enough to try to earn a living running a machine shop will meet and work with someone in the dealer fraternity. This history gives an idea of how really tough the business can be. Dealers really do not have it any easier than the rest of us, they work for their living.

    When we go out to buy a machine tool we should take that into consideration and try not to look at a machinery dealer as an adversary.

    I once bought a machine full price from a dealer and then financed it on a three year lease. I own it now and I have owned it for so long that the price and financing costs are totally immaterial.

    The machinery dealers in this country now have some of the best high quality used manually operated machines in stock that I have ever seen on the market. The Machinery Dealers National Associatin members all offer their standard thirty day return policy. If the machine isn't righ they will take it back. I haven't seen a comparable poilcy offered by the import sellers.

    Talk to the dealer, tell him what you want and he will probably find just the thing. In todays market, the machine will probably be a gem.

    Keep your attitude regulated, if you see a machine you want, see if the dealer will cut you some slack, they usually will. Buy it if you want it - 20 years from now the cost won't mean a thing. I know, I have had machines for much longer than that.

    Mr. Dealer - cutting individuals and small shops some slack on the price of manual machine tools is your best advertizing. Get the manual machines in the hands of young people. Show them how the machine can actually work to make a profit for them. If the young people just starting out don't learn how to use the manual machines, you won't be dealers any more, you will end up as museum curators.

    Thanks again Mr. Graf

    (Full Disclosure) Posted by Jim Kizale, who has bought and sold a machine or two, but who is Definately Not a Dealer and is not getting any pesonal benefit from this article.

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    great story, all to true! response from a dealer. There is not alot of room anymore for the middle man. but I am still looking.

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    Does anyone know anything about the history of used machinery dealers in Philadelphia?

    I remember being fascinated, as a boy in the early 1960's, with a dealer on North 3rd Street, near Arch (Carpenter's, I think), which, even then, had some old stuff. (Diagonally across the street from this was a long, low, dusty, woodturning shop--also fascinating. And a wooden ladder manufactory--in that block also, I think, used to stack its stock on the sidewalk outside the shop, as did the machinery dealer.)

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    Even though I'm a Southern boy, I've been in some of the dealers on Arch St. back in the mid 1980's. I seem to recall cobblestone streets and wondering how they would actually get any machines out of there if someone bought something.

    Got my collection of old woodworking machinery catalogs from one of them. Fancy hardbound catalogs back to 1880.

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    I used to go there about 20 years ago... then there were only about two blocks of dealers left on 3rd just to the north of Market...... On news years eve afternoon a about 4 years ago my wife and I were driving through Phila. and as we went down Market I said I want to turn up 3rd and see if any dealers are still here... we double parked (she stayed in the car because I would only be a minute...) there were 2 left... Samuel's and the place across the street..... did a quick run through and Found a minty Deckel Model GO circa 1928 at Samuel's..... it took awhile to get the older owner and get a deal done (Great Machine... I was using it yesterday).... anyway about 10 days the Gentleman died..... some friends of mine in Kansas went back and got a few truck loads of older stuff out of there in the next few months...... I don't if anything is left but at the time he had stuff in 5 buildings in the area...... also above is mentioned a fellow named Berliner, I'm sure I met him on one of the first trips I was taken on by some older machine guys that "taught" me how to shop and find this kind of stuff all those years ago.... I have always remembered that name.

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    Ah yes, I remember Samuel Machinery. That inspired me to look in my old card files, and the fellow I got the woodworking catalog collection from was Phil Borck. He had two different cards..one says Commercial Equip & Machinery and the othe says Swanger Brothers Machinery. First one on 5th St. and Swanger on 3rd St.

    The collection originated from the estate of L. Power Machinery, who manufactured woodworking machines in the early part of the 20th century in PA, but later got into selling used woodworking machines. In the files are some fascinating letters and letterheads.

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    I kept trying to remember the name of another place around the corner.... Thanks Don.... it was Swanger bros.... what I like are the brass plates with the dealers logo's on them.... have a few but wish I collected them then.....

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    So, if we were to go to 3rd St today, what would we find in Philly, PA ?

    (btw, I thought Carpenters Machinery was all woodworking ?)

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    It's fine to think that other people also recall that scene that I remember...which has vanished.

    You folks--rivett608 & Don Thomas--are much more accomplished in this than I ever was or will be but the links to my childhood--including those connected with manufacturing and machine tools-- are poignant. I intend to try to organize my memories and see if they might be of any interest here.

    All that area of downtown Philadelphia is now prosperous, thriving, gentrified. Full of people who have no real idea of what it is that you or I recall. I probably should have invested in that real estate instead of running the other way--with a bunch of heavy machines--when I saw what was coming.

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    The used machine tool dealers are a fast-vanishing breed. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. As a kid, attending Brooklyn Technical HS, I would often take the subway over to Manhattan on a Friday afternon after school. There, I would walk the streets of the "used machinery district"- loosely referred to as "Centre Street". This was an area of a few square blocks with streets like Canal, Grand, Lafayette, Centre and Broadway running through it. The dealers were predominently Jewish families who had storefront dealerships. Most also had warehouses. The storefronts were chuck full of used machine tools. Stuff like engine lathes, mills, drill presses, smaller Bullards, and surface grinders. Anything from flat-belt driven machine tools to geared head stuff was to be found there. The show windows of these places had a ledge on the inside. These ledges were usually loaded up with all the tooling- the stuff like vises, chucks, toolposts, and bushel baskets of cutting tools. The actual store floors were packed tight with the machine tools with barely enough room to wiggle between the machine tools. Some machinery was "as removed", but most had been cleaned and re-painted. The used machine tool stores smelled of a mixture of fresh enamel, machine oil, perhaps some kerosene, and most often some cigar smoke.

    As a kid, I would poke my head in the doors of these dealers. It was pretty obvious I was a kid of perhap 14 or 15 and not likely to be buying anything. The dealers would catch sight of me and say: "C'mon in boychick (Yiddish slang)- It don't cost anything to look." I'd come into the dealers and browse around, looking at things like War Production Board engine lathes and mills, perhaps askign the price on a 10" Southbend, dreaming of having a lathe in my own shop. The dealers would ask if I was going to Brooklyn Tech, ask what I wanted to become (a mechanical engineer- which I have been for the last 32 years), and generally seemed to take an interest in an interested kid. Sometimes, if they had something interesting, they would show it to us. Stuff like a two-head Bridgeport with "True Trace" (used a lot out on Long Island by shops doing aerospace work), or maybe a first-generation NC machine (using the punched paper tape). from time to time,I would find something int he stuff along the window ledges- perhaps a mike or square or a toolholder. It was all good stuff, US made. The dealers would ask perhaps a couple of bucks at most for the stuff on the window ledges. It was not the stuff they made the money on, so they could let a kid have it cheap. Some of the stuff I bought 40 odd years ago down there is still in my chests and used by me.

    These dealers usually had a couple of guys who cleaned up the used machinery for resale. These guys were often immigrants from Europe. Could be Polish, Russian, Hungarian, and sometimes might be an older German or Austrian. These guys had the jobs of cleaning up the used machinery when it arrived. Often, this was done out in the street, washing it down with kerosene or gasoline. Anything that was painted got cleaned, and if it was really chipped up, might get filled/sanded before repainting. Anything that was machined or bare metal surfaces at least got steel-wooled, wire-wheeled or hit with emery cloth (this was "pre ScotchBrite" pads by a good 25 or 30 years). Beds, tables and similar were a whole 'nother matter. Some of the dealers had their men rescrape anything which was orginally scraped. Scraping was a debatable topic. Some dealers simply had their guys take oil stones and emery to the surfaces to take out the deeper scoring, then simply re-frost, putting the "fish scale" scraped pattern back on. This left a good looking machine with a bed said to be "swaybacked" amongst the machinists. Other dealers actually did have their guys take the straight edges and scrapers and really rescrape the beds and tables on machines which were more in demand. The stories about what the dealers did to "pretty up" the used machines were a hot topic amongst the machinists in the shops I worked in when I was a teenager.

    As I got older I occasionally bought machine tools from the dealers down on Centre Street. Part of the fun was the bargaining. No one in their right mind walked into a dealer and paid the price asked. The bargaining or "hondeling" or "gesheft" (German or Yiddish for "dealings") was an expected part of the game. When it became apparent that a buyer was serious about buying a machine tool, the dealer would have his guys move stuff away and hook up temporary power. The machinery could be run under power, perhaps the buyer would be savvy enough to put a dial indicator and pinch bar to things. I never knew a dealer to hustle a buyer, letting them check the machinery all they liked, opening headstocks if need be. When the inspection was done, the hondeling began again. Aside from the price, there was always the business of getting stuff like some major tooling thrown into the sale. When the deal was made, a handshake was "it"- the deal was done and sealed with the handshake. Oftentimes, the dealer would reach into a drawer and pull out a fifth of whisky and a couple of glasses. I recall having a belt of neat whisky with the dealers after shaking hands on deals a few times. It was all part of the process.

    Out in the street, the "riggers" were to be found. If you bought a machine tool, the dealer might well work a deal with a machinery mover. If not, the machinery movers were out there with their old trucks, sensing a possible job. These guys all had the old "beavertail" straight trucks. Single axle trucks like old B-model Macks or Brockways, with winches and capstans behind the cabs. They rigged with hemp rope, rollers, horse, planks, cribbing and the old ratchet jacks and could waltz any machine tool in the neighborhood in or out of the tightest places. If you bought a machine tool, you didn't have to scratch too hard to find someone to move it to your place. Of course, it was a fresh round of bargaining not unlike what you;d just had with the used machine tool dealers. The difference was it took place at the curbside, with the rigger chomping on his cigar and figuring if he could move the machine you'd bought along with some other machine to save a few bucks.

    Well that era is, unfortunately, about gone for good. I took my family back down to "Centre Street" a few years ago to show them where I used to walk around and dream as a teenager. We parked on a lot at the site of what had been two dealers (Berk Machinery being one of them, I think). Almost all the used machine tool dealers are gone. The area now has some new, trendy name. It has been taken over primarily by Chinese businesses dealing in imported consumer goods. The lofts over the old dealerships, once filled with machine tools, are now Yuppie loft housing. Here and there, you see the old signs painted on the brick walls- stuff like "Frank Tracy- Millwrights" (the Boston gear dealer as well as provind real milwright service). All the old businesses- the machine tool dealers as well as the Starret dealer (Max Shur- I bought my first Starret tol there, a 6" rule in 1964) and the Brown and Sharpe Dealer (David Queller), are gone. I think only one dealer- Grand Machinery- is left. I took my family in there to show them what the old time used machine tool dealerships were like. The smell was the same, and the same mounted marlin was on the back-wall as had been there when I was a kid 40 years earlier. Grand Machinery had a model machine shop in the front window, nice working model machine tools along with a model steam engine and lineshafting, all built by some nameless machinist eons ago. It was still there, covered with dust. Inside, instead of K & T mills, there were now Bridgeports. More older imported lathes on the floors, but still some LeBlonds and Monarchs. All painted and shined up, same as years ago. A gang of immigrants was still on hand, cleaning up the machinery. Only difference was these immigrants came from the Far East and South America instead of Europe and they had discovered "Scotchbrite" pads. For a moment or two, I stood there with my wife and kids , but being in that oldtime used machine tool dealers was as though I was sixteen again, ready to walk up the street and catch the subway home to my parents. We took a quick look then stepped out into the streets, where I rejoined the present. Nowadays, Dave Sobel, over in New Jersey is likely the only remnant of the old Centre Street type dealers. Most used machine tools move via e-bay, and hard bargaining along with smoking/chomping cigars and drinking whisky are all considered to be "socially incorrect". The manufacturing industry base in and around NY City which required small to medium sized machine tools is long gone, as are the US machine tool builders. It was a whole era and a whole way of life that has vanished along with those oldtime machine tool dealers. The country has become so homogenized that whole documentary series on television are devoted to re-discovering the ethnic roots. They provide a sanitized, watered down version. A visit to the old machine tool dealers on Centre Street was definitely the stuff of which a real documentary could have been made.

  13. Likes Steven-Canada, 1yesca liked this post
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    Wonderful read Joe...makes me want to drive up to Grand and Sobel myself just to see if I can catch a whiff of what once was. I came to this profession later in life...not till I was in late 20's, but I have an inkling of what you describe from my visits to the old time dealers in Philadelphia in the mid 1980's.

    I would take issue with your statement "most used machine tools move via e-bay" as absolutely incorrect however. Probably true of home shop type machines, but I can guarantee you the vast majority of modern production machine tools change hands without the slightest hint of eBay being involved.

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    Joe- its good to hear that the little model machine shop is still in the window of Grand Machinery- I still remember stumbling across that neighborhood, and seeing that little model, in about 1978, the first time I went to NYC. I was years from being able to afford machine tools of my own at that point- that was about the year I bought my Starrett no. 9 combination square, and that took my spending money for a month or so- 75 bucks, I think I paid for the three head combo set.
    I haunted used machinery dealers in Seattle in the mid 70's, when there were still 6 or 8 of them in the industrial district, and although the dealers were mostly crusty old scandanavians, the experience was much the same. In the cities I am most familiar with, Seattle and Los Angeles, there used to be lots of old eccentric dealers, and now almost all are gone, victims to high real estate prices, and the generally higher cost of doing business.

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    I was in Grand Machinery a few years ago when they were moving a Bliss OBI around, might had been a 50 ton press. pushing it on pipes on a wood floor over to a hole in the floor where is was rigged with rope and swung over the opening to to lowered into the basement. that building is a real pain for them. Worth alot more as living loft and retail that is for sure. BTW, I understand that practically the entire street is owned by a used dealer [I won't emntion the name incase I am wrong], so that is a heck of an investment for him.

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    Joe,
    Reading you post regarding the old dealers in lower Manhattan was like having a conversation with my Dad. Up until we moved to Florida in 1969, he was responsible for all the machinery purchases for his company, a large metal stamping company in Brooklyn, not far from the Navy Yard. As I entered the trade in the 1970's, and went on to engineering school, he gave me many of the tools he picked up on his forays to Centre St. Even today when he comes over to the house and rummages thru my Gerstner box, he reminisces about one tool or another. Many thanks for you thought provoking posts.
    Regards,
    Bob

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    Thanks to everyone for the nice commentary on my ramblings. It is interesting and sad to see how quickly an era ended and seemingly isn't acknowledged or remembered by the general population.

    Bob-O, as you note, similar to your dad, every tool in my chests has a story of some sort. While our son has no real interest in machine work or engineering, he has an interest and appreciation for it as well as for the machines and tools. He knows the history and downfall of US Manufacturing as told by yours truly, as well as knowing what it takes to do a job. Our son also knows that my wood chests and the mikes and indicators and squares and other stuff in them will pass to him. He saw me go over to the home of an oldtimer in our town a few months ago. the guy is about 90, a toolmaker, and slowing down. This oldtimer called me to come and see if I wanted to buy some of his tools. I wound up comingh ome with a box full of odds and ends- a heavy framed B & S inspection mike bought new for a job in 1943, another precision level, a 3 foot Starrett steel rule... As my son understood, while I had all the machinist tools I was likely to need, the fact these tools came from an old friend made them special.

    I bought my first new Starrett tool, a number 604 RE rule, down there on Centre Street in 1964. what made it interesting was the rule cost (in those days) something like $ 3.50. Chrome plating was extra. I could not afford to spring for the chrome plating, so bought a plain steel rule. I do not think Starrett even offers the 6" rules in plain steel any more. Last night at dinner, my son was asking me about "hock shops" (pawn brokers). I was telling him about seeing the pawn shops down in NY City when I was younger. My own father used to show me the "Phi Beta Kappa keys" laying in the hock shop window displays as "out of pawn". These were watch chain charms given to persons initiated into Phi Beta Kappa, a society open to persons making straight "A" grades in college. Dad would point out rather sadly that some brilliant minds had hit the skids. I'd be looking at the used mikes and indicators in the hock shop windows. I told my son that one of my saddest memories of the hock shop windows was seing a nice large wood chest with all the machinist tools spread out for sale. It was a hock shop on Atlantic Avenue, in Brooklyn, near Brooklyn Tech HS. This particular chest had belonged to someone named "Coppola" and every last mike and indicator, square, surface gauge or anything else in that chest was engraved neatly with the name: "Coppola". I told my son that I was younger than him when I saw that chest in the hock shop window and it hit me that a man's skill and livelihood was right there, "out of pawn". My son said he thought that a man's machinist chest was passed along in the family, and asked if I ever found out how that particular chest came to be in the hock shop. My son figured that whoever Mr. Coppola was, he must've been in some very rough straits or perhaps he was no more and his family had to hock his chest. Interesting discussion with my son, sitting at the dinner table, talking about how times have changed, and about the significance of a machinist chest. I told my son how when some men got ready to retire, if they had no sons or nephews or anyone int he family to pass their tools to, they sold them off to the guys in the shop. That is how I got a lot of the tools in my chests. I told my son that oftentimes, I would buy some of the tools because they were good tools, priced right, and a means to remember someone who might have helped along the way. With that, I went down to the shop and took out a 1" Brown and Sharpe Mike. I brought it up to the table and showed my son. It was the first "good" mike I ever owned. What made it interesting is it is neatly and deeply engraved with the name "G Ferron". I never knew Mr. Ferron. I was younger than my son is now (he is 16), working for the summer in a shop. There was an immigrant toolmaker named Heinz who had taken a liking to me. Heinz had come thru his time at DWM (Deutsche Waffen und Munition Fabrik). Heinz knew I was just a kid, and was heading for engineering school, but he took the time to show me a lot of stuff. Anyhow, Heinz saw I did not have a good mike, so asked me if I wanted one. He sold me that B & S mike for perhaps 5 dollars, telling me he had bought it used from Mr. Ferron when Ferron was retiring from the old Schrader plant in Brooklyn. Heinz arrived in the USA and one of his first jobs in the USA had been as toolmaker at Schrader. Schrader was the inventor & manufacturer of the "Schrader Valve" -used on on just about every tire, as well as a lot of other pneumatic devices. Schrader, as a firm, still exists, though relocated down into the Southern USA.

    One thing my son has learned from these discussions is the importance of having a "real" trade as well as a "real" profession. Something, as I tell him, that will earn you a living no matter what.

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    Thank you JOE for such nice memories..... I too remember the Marlin and model shop at Grand.... and some of the other dealers.... and the while I thought it was great the older guys I was with were carrying on about how it was nothing like it was.... now it is really NOTHING like it was..... after completing a purchase of tools in Paris... it was wine not whiskey that was poured..... that is such a nice way to do business... civil and memorable which I guess is the point.... better than advertising to get repeat customers.

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    This was all a good read... Thanks!

    I find it interesting that all of the dialog here is pretty much from the East Coast. I wonder why, although I can say that there are almost no used machinery businesses in the Bay Area (CA) anymore. Performance and maybe one other, but that is it. EBay has pretty much killed it all.

    One reason that I find all of this interesting is that it brings a real sense of connection to my father. He came out to the West Coast in the early part of WW-II. In the 50's he started working for my uncle as a die maker. In the 50's one of their customers, a lighting manufacturer, basically said that they should start a company to cast parts for the dies being made. That is how a new business was formed. In the end, my uncle and father grew a business that became a fairly sizable entity in the northern CA market. Enough, at least, that it was always fun when I was in college to show people some of the wares. Usually it went something like this:

    "What does your father do".
    "Oh, we manufacturer things"... <look around> "For instance, see that bezel over there?... We made that".

    The business did well enough, I guess. It put 4 kids through school and gave us all a comfortable life. I certainly cannot complain; my parents have always been very generous to us.

    Some of my fondest memories are when, as I kid, I would go down and "help" my dad work for a half day on Saturday. The place was dead quiet then... Just this cavernous building with rows of Bridgeports, lathes, EDMs, punch presses and really ominous die casting machines. Let me tell you, a 700 ton die casting machine in a huge building illuminated by only an odd-ball flourescent fixture here and there is mighty creepy to a 6 year old! But that smell was majestic... Just like at old CAT D5--grease and oil and warmth. Very cool.

    Anyhow, all of this post has really given me an appreciation for how my dad went about the business of, well, just staying in business!

    Thanks!
    --Alan

    P.S. To give you an idea of how wild this all was, I recall my mom taking us out of school when at least one new die casting machine was delivered. That was *really* cool. It came on one of those trucks that has probably 24 wheels or so. Sliding that thing off and then positioning it on its 2.5' slab was just mind boggling for a 9 year old.

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    Wrench,
    My previous employer was a zinc/alum die caster. I left for "greener pastures" about 6 years ago. I heard that they went from 2 shifts 5 1/2 days to around 40 hrs total. With pots on 14 machines to keep molten, you know they got run to pay the utility bills! My Dad and his 2 cousins were tool & diemakers working together before WWII. Dad returned to his pre-war employer and worked a total of 50 years for them. One of the other cousins would only work 10 months out of the year. He would take off July & August. Come September, he'd go back and ask if the shop he left in July still needed him. If not he simply found another job. Things were so good here in the 50's & 60's, that he always found something. He actually retired long before my Dad.

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    Bob,
    The business has gone through many interesting times.... Most of what they cast is aluminum, but they also had a machine that would do zinc/lead. As a kid I packed a ton of lead parts that were used in the radioscope (medical) industry.... Maybe that is why I can't remember my name now!

    They changed from gas fired pots to electric about 15 years ago. Back in the gas days you were literally blowing heat out the roof. I seem to recall my dad once saying that the monthly gas bill alone was something like 20K.. And that was probably in 1980! With the advent of auto-ladle machines, they were able to get the ladle over the large amount of insulation on the electric pots... much safer too. Plus, they don't have to remove the Aluminum all the time (insulated caps... Aluminum expands when cooling, so the crucible with crack if you leave Al in it and turn off the heat source).

    Funny story... The workers used to heat cans of chili (not sanctioned) by putting them next to the gas fired furnaces. One day a new guy decided to do the same thing. Only trouble was, he didn't watch what the others were doing when they punched holes in the cans first. Anyhow, the fluid boiled, the can burst, flew up in the air and landed in the pot of molten aluminum. That is akin to adding water to HCl.... Not good! The molten aluminum *shot* up into the rafters like a bat out of hell. I only heard about the story, but I think there was some major a** ch3ewing on that. :rolleyes:

    As for the business... It is actually still going, but the economy is hurting, as it is with anything else. Will it survive? Who knows. They used to run 3 shifts (graveyard was more to keep watch over the pots, etc) and have quite a few large machines. I think they are on one shift now and many idle machines... There have definitely been better times to be in manufacturing, but that is a different story entirely.

    --Alan


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