Holding Court with Needle and Thread

GINO 7Grace Maalouf Gino di Girolamo speaks with a customer at his East 14th Street shop, Royal Tailor.

Gioacchino di Girolamo has a punctured nail. For the first time in decades, the needle of his black iron sewing machine has slipped straight through his finger, and the Royal Tailor of 14th Street is not quite sure how it happened. Maybe he fell asleep at the wheel. After all, he keeps it spinning just about every weekday from about six in the evening till sunrise, and all day on the weekends. Six days a week, nearly every week, and yet —

“Never in my life this happened,” he says of the wound. And it’s been more than 45 years that the bespectacled man from Palermo, Sicily, has been steadily stitching shirts and dresses, hemming pants and re-fastening buttons for the New York City masses unraveling at the seams. In all that time, he hasn’t strayed far from Avenue A; he has worked in four different shops, all here in a two-block radius. And as the East Village has prospered, turned violent and then fallen peaceful again around him, he has watched it all from behind an ever-present pile of clothing waiting to be mended.

“I don’t know. I work hard,” he says about the possibility of having dozed off. “But, thank God.”

Business is good, though that might be incidental. For the 75-year-old Mr. di Girolamo — Gino to his friends and customers — the long hours and open door that have made him a cornerstone on this avenue aren’t about money.

GINO 13Grace Maalouf Mr. di Girolamo at work.

“He doesn’t really need it. He can close right now,” says Enrique Arroza, a musician who lives and works in the neighborhood. Mr. Arroza, 49, has been coming to Gino for 22 years — first as a customer, and now as a friend. For the last few weeks, he’s been stopping by to watch American Idol finales, which he and Gino dissect with gusto (sometimes in English, sometimes in Italian).

“He’s one of the last dinosaurs in the East Village,” Mr. Arroza says about his friend. Gentrification forced everyone to move out, he says, and Gino is one of the few old-timers who are left. “It’s precious.”

Though Mr. Arroza says he’s “always bothering” Gino and “trying to convince him to retire,” his words fall on busy hands and are brushed away.

“He must love what he does,” Mr. Arroza says. “It’s the only rational explanation.”

But is it the right one? Gino looks up from a tweed dress he is shortening and nods, smiling.

“That’s right,” he says.

On one wall of his shop hangs his tailor certificate from Sicily, and across from it a photo of him among classmates. He is the one in thick-framed glasses, with a measuring tape around his neck.

He began a tailor apprenticeship there at the age of 10 and moved to Milan a decade later to learn more about the business.

“But they learned from me!” he laughs about his time in the fashionable city. He spent two years in Milan, wanted to buy the shop from the old Neapolitan man for whom he worked. But one day his mother called him with unexpected news that despite being an only child, he had been called into the Italian military service.

So he headed to Tuscany, where for two years his sewing skills made him popular with the Italian officers. In exchange for hand-made suits crafted in his home, the captain — also from Palermo — kept Gino from being deployed outside the country.

GINO 8Grace Maalouf At his East 14th Street tailor shop, Gino di Girolamo measures and pins a suit jacket for Jeff Brown, a customer of 10 years.

“He excused me from everything,” Gino says. Other officers commissioned his work, and though they weren’t supposed to pay him, he received plenty of “gifts” in exchange for his labor.

“I was like a boss in the military,” he says. But when he returned home to Palermo and set up his own shop, he couldn’t turn a profit in two years of work.

“In Palermo, nobody wants to pay,” he says. “They pay what they decide to pay.”

If that meant paying two months later, or not paying at all, then he would just have to wait. Not being able to advance in his business, Gino decided to head for America in 1963. He contacted an aunt in New Jersey who would house him for his first year in the country, and he bid farewell to the parents he loved. For three decades, he sent a monthly check back to them. He had been the only one of six children who lived.

“I’m a survivor,” he says.

Gino now lives in Queens with his wife, Adriana, who he met and married the year after arriving.

Adriana, 87, a retired schoolteacher, laughs about her husband’s strange work hours, to which she has gradually adapted.

“We have supper in the morning,” she says. Gino became a night owl little by little as the years rolled on; he would wake up later and later, leave for work later. Ten, eleven, noon, one. And then, he would keep working into the night.

“He loves it,” she says. “It’s his passion.”

And he doesn’t advertise this passion, because he doesn’t need to. If you do good work, people will come; that’s his philosophy.

“You know what is the best advertisement?” he asks. “Customers.”

Jeff Brown, 48, an East Village resident who has been a loyal Gino customer for 10 years, says his skills are “all in the details.” But they might also be in the service.

One night, Gino examines a recently-sewn suit jacket for a customer who wants his opinion on the craftsmanship. The jacket is too big, but the customer needs to wear it that night. Can he come back at 4:30 a.m. to drop it off for the alterations?

Of course.

GINO 4Grace Maalouf Gino di Girolamo works on alterations at his East 14th Street shop, Royal Tailor.