Goodbye, Park Slope. The Clay Pot Has Had Enough.


When Bob and Sally Silberberg opened the Clay Pot in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1969, Seventh Avenue was dotted with bars. Some had been there for decades, when the neighborhood was home to dock workers living in single-room occupancies. It was an unlikely location for a hippie pottery store.

“We had a teapot show,” Mr. Silberberg, now 76, recently recalled. “And this guy came in and stole an elephant teapot. My manager ran to the nearest bar, the Stack of Barley, and said, ‘Someone just stole a teapot!’ The guys at the bar chased him down the block. The cops apprehended him and the teapot was held for evidence. A year and a half later, I went to Queens to get it, and the man at the desk shouted, ‘Here’s the guy for the elephant teapot!’”

Park Slope has changed a great deal since the Stack of Barley days. Today nearly all of Seventh Avenue’s 1960s-era shops have been replaced by chains like Chipotle, and a distressing number of nail salons and real-estate brokers.

A few weeks ago the Clay Pot’s owner, Tara Silberberg, the Silberbergs’ older daughter, announced that she was closing the Park Slope location to focus on online sales and a recently opened NoLIta branch. Since then customers have been coming in to the Slope store to weep.

“I feel like Mrs. Maisel doing her ‘tight 10’ standup routine,” said Ms. Silberberg, 50, on a weekday afternoon. “I have to say the same thing over and over. They want to know, ‘Is it rent?’ ‘Do you not love us anymore?’ ‘Is it Park Slope?’ I say: ‘It’s not you, it’s us. We’re having success in other places.’”

But that is not the entire story. It is Park Slope, and Park Slopers, and Ms. Silberberg’s 30-year relationship with the neighborhood. This is not about another beloved, mom-and-pop throwing in the towel due to high rent. It is about a woman who turned 50 and decided to create a new life for herself.

In 1968 Bob Silberberg was a potter working in the education department at the Whitney Museum. He and his wife, Sally, also a potter, were living in a rental in Park Slope. Tara was born that year, and a few months later Sally decided to open a studio. “There were a lot of storefronts on Seventh Avenue for rent, and we found an old butcher shop,” said Mr. Silberberg. They moved to the current Seventh Avenue location two years later.

They installed the studio in the back and made the front portion the gallery. They put hanging planters in the window, a hot item. The handmade movement was taking off. People wanted ceramic coffee mugs. It was a good fit for Park Slope, whose demographics were shifting. As Pete Hamill wrote in a 1969 New York magazine article, “It is still possible in Park Slope … to buy a brownstone in reasonably good condition for $30,000, with a number of fairly good houses available for less, if you are willing to invest in reconditioning them. Hundreds of people are discovering that Brooklyn has become the Sane Alternative: a part of New York where you can live a decent urban life without going broke.”

But the Silberbergs decided Brooklyn was not, in fact, the sane alternative. In October 1973 a Park Slope boy was attacked and blinded by a neighbor who threw sulfuric acid in his face. “My mom couldn’t deal with living in New York,” said Ms. Silberberg. In 1974 they moved with their daughters to Western Massachusetts but somebody said: “This neighborhood is hot! You should keep the store!”

Managing the store from afar, the Silberbergs made pottery that they sold to the Pottery Barn. But in 1980 their Massachusetts studio caught fire and exploded. “The only other way for them to make money was the store,” said Ms. Silberberg, “so they decided to buy stuff from other craftspeople.”

“Is this the part where I start crying?” murmured a nearby customer, Fanny Gotschall, a graphic designer. “I bought my wedding ring here 20 years ago, when we were very broke.” She displayed a platinum eternity band. Her husband was then a musician. Now he is in financial advertising, and she owns her own company.

Wedding bands were the turning point for the store. Mr. Silberberg got the idea to have themed shows after the financial markets crashed, beginning with a wedding band show in the spring of 1988. It was so successful that he decided to research handmade wedding bands, and a custom ring business took off. (That same year, the couple moved back to Park Slope, where they would stay until 2015.) Manhattan customers seeking original jewelry would make the trek on weekends. It never occurred to him to change the name. “The Clay Pot made it sound different,” he said.

In 1990 Tara graduated from Sarah Lawrence and that summer took a job in the store. Four women handled wedding ring sales, she said: “We called the back room the ring room, and we called them the ring babes. Nobody had any experience in jewelry but we had a passion for it.” Over ensuing years the Clay Pot has sold a combination of high-end jewelry and one-of-a-kind, handcrafted gifts. Customers who bought their own wedding bands return with their children, and grandchildren.

Ms. Silberberg said there was a ritualistic aspect of shopping at the store. “A husband and wife come in and she’s picking a pair of earrings for herself,” she said. “Or a father and kids come in and buy Mother’s Day presents. That’s the part that I’ll miss.” She started to cry a bit.

Though the upscalification of Park Slope kept affluent shoppers coming in throughout the 1990s and 2000s, most money was made at Christmas. After that, Ms. Silberberg said, “It’s just ‘Bye-bye, money’ until Mother’s Day.”

In 2014, she opened the NoLIta outpost, focused on jewelry. “When you’re doing bridal you need young customers,” she said. “And those kids in North Brooklyn are more likely to go to NoLIta than to take the G to Park Slope.” Last year Spring Street’s sales surpassed Park Slope’s, and she began to think about the future.

“I’m part of this ecosystem of Park Slope, but at the end of the day it’s taxing. This place is endlessly complicated. And the people are just goo-goo, their needs and special requests.”

Then there is the changing nature of Seventh Avenue, which she called “a wasteland.” Seventh Avenue restaurants sit empty on weeknights, and many storefronts are shuttered, owned by landlords who want losses to offset their taxes. Young residents of Gowanus, she said, now shop on the newer shopping nexus of Fifth Avenue.

Ms. Silberberg expects to be out of Park Slope by March 10 (she herself moved from Park Slope to Prospect Heights last summer). She has a 21-year-old daughter and is in her second marriage. She will spend more time at a second home upstate, and launch her own jewelry line.

Asked if he was sad about the shop leaving Brooklyn, Mr. Silberberg wasn’t particularly sentimental. “The store has already gone through four or five different life-forms,” he said. “You have to keep reinventing yourself, unless you’re Lobel the butcher and just sell meat.”



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