“I used to hate stepping on crack vials, and now I miss those vials,” says Marty Rosen. The onetime street peddler has seen plenty of changes on St. Marks Place: he opened The Sock Man there three decades ago. “I asked myself, ‘What are the things that everyone needs?’ Well, they need socks. So I got a vending license and all that stuff. Then I saved up enough money to open a store,” he told The Local. Joey Ramone and Eric Clapton many not stop in anymore, but The Sock Man still gets its share of rockers: David Johansen of the New York Dolls recently snagged a $3 pair, and Courtney Love took home four tutus. But is the occasional visit from Chloe Sevigny (who called Mr. Rosen the “grumpiest man on earth”) enough to keep the institution alive and kicking should it get socked with a rent hike? We asked.
Has The Sock Man always been on St. Marks Place?
I’ve been here since 1983, but this is my third location on St. Marks. I was first somewhere for eight months. Now I’ve been in this spot since 1992. Before that I was across the street at 18 St. Marks. I left because I was under harassment by the landlord there and it was very stressful. I was caught in the middle of paying one guy the rent who wasn’t giving his partner any of the money.
I took him to court and won. I had to stand up for my rights. I won the right to stay for free for six months but the aggravation was too much, so I moved as soon as I got this place.
Why did you decide to make socks your thing?
Before I opened the store I was a street peddler with not much money. There were no stores of this nature any place in the United States. I asked myself, “What are the things that everyone needs?” Well, they need socks. So I got a vending license and all that stuff. Then I saved up enough money to open a store.
When it comes to sock sales, summertime must be the pits.
It’s horrible. It’s my worst time. It’s so bad that I could probably just close up during the summer. But I sell more than just socks. I sell thigh-highs, knee-highs, lingerie, and all kinds of hosiery. We have clothing too like skirts and dresses. We also hook up with different artists who produce silkscreen merchandise. I wish I had a larger store to sell more stuff. It’s just 300 square feet in here so we have a lot of limitations.
Why didn’t you look for a bigger place when the rents were a lot cheaper?
Years ago I could have had a larger space, but then who knows what that would cost me now, and if I would still be able to stay open. The neighborhood has changed so much and that is because of the costs of everything. We have lost the flavor and the edge and now we have 7-Eleven and dollar pizza on the block. We’ve lost almost all of our unique ’80s boutiques, so I’m one of three that remain from that era. I don’t blame it just on gentrification; it’s more greedy landlords.
Does that mean your rent is kind of affordable for now?
Not really. I’m paying a lot of money for that little space, like $5,000. If they double the rent when my lease is up, I won’t be able to stay here. My [clients] will go to H&M and Forever 21, or to third world countries for lower quality versions of what I sell, and I just can’t match those prices. I try to get all my stuff made in the States, so that means you have to charge more because you are paying more. When I don’t get stuff made in the States, I try for Italy, France and Japan, not China. It is my philosophy that if I didn’t have good quality stuff, I’d have been out of here 27 years ago.
Higher quality goods on St. Marks Place are what have allowed your business to sustain?
Good quality has been the answer. It’s harder and harder to last only because of the rent. People have money, but they come to St. Marks for the stalls and vendors who can easily go down $4 if you ask them because they sell poorer quality. I just can’t go down in price. You don’t go to Barney’s and Bloomingdale’s and ask for a better price.
Have you done anything recently to refresh or renovate the store?
We just painted the store with brighter colors to give it a different look. There’s purple in there with green dots and hot pinks and yellows to make it a more fun-looking space. I also took the mannequin out of the window to open it up more. I am trying to make the space more of an attraction than a distraction. Before we had a lot of boxes lying around and that wasn’t good. We used to have a flea market look with a [table] outside. We got rid of that so we don’t confuse people about the quality and cost of things anymore. We are carrying less inexpensive stuff.
What’s the coolest thing you sell?
I design a lot of stuff. I designed a middle finger sock that was popular for a while.
Do you still like doing this?
I’m questioning that myself lately. Right now, that’s really hard for me to answer. The high rent makes it hard for ends to meet. At this juncture though, if I give it up, I don’t know what else I can do. If I move to another location I’m not sure if I should try to buy. For so long this location was the best. Now, maybe it’s not. Williamsburg was the spot years ago, but I didn’t go there so it’s too late. I should have gone maybe when all the music left for Williamsburg.