By Sabina Mollot
In what some of his patrons are calling an end of an era, Gino DiGirolamo, the man behind the sewing machine at Royal Tailor for the past 50 years is hanging up his cloth measuring tape and retiring.
At least, that’s what he said he’ll be doing if he can’t find another shop nearby his current business on East 14th Street that’s affordable.
The reason DiGirolamo is closing that shop, a sliver of a space between Avenues A and B, is that his rent recently increased from $3,000 to $4,000.
This is not an increase the 75-year-old tailor, who’s known for his low prices as well as his skill with a needle and thread, said he can afford.
The store is scheduled to close at the end of the month and while DiGirolamo said he would consider just moving, he probably won’t.
“If I find something on Avenue B, I’ll see, but if it’s a lot of money, it don’t pay,” he said.
He’s been at his current space a few years. Prior to that he’d been around the corner on Avenue A, which is where he bought the business decades ago from his then-employer for $1,000. This was in 1963 and the shop’s owner had decided to return to Italy, where he was from. At the time, DiGirolamo, who’s from Palermo, Sicily, was hesitant. He spoke just a few words of English. However, he ended up changing his mind when a local woman offered to work for him as a translator.
Though she has since died (in 2012) at the age of 95, Mary Pupillo ended up working with him for years and her photo still hangs on his wall. There’s also a picture of DiGirolamo’s wife of 50 years, Adriana. A fixture at his shop, Adriana, a schoolteacher, died last October due to a heart problem.
“She was with me always,” said DiGirolamo.
Still, despite his loss, DiGirolamo said he’s never missed a day of work, and his typical workweek is around 80 hours.
“I work day and night, no vacations,” he said.
A resident of Ozone Park in Queens, DiGirolamo’s commute to his workspace is about an hour each way. His hours aren’t always exactly the same but he can often be found working throughout the night, finishing at 10 or 11 in the morning after a 12-hour shift. After work his son Vito will usually give him a ride home.
Working nights instead of days has made him more productive, he said, since at night “Nobody bothers me.”
Though customers still pop in fairly regularly, when they don’t, for company while he works, DiGirolamo’s radio is always on. There’s also a television, though that’s never on except during the occasional soccer game.
There’s also always a pile of clothes on the counter that he’s working on at any given time. The tailor said he doesn’t specialize in any particular type of clothing. “I’ll do anything,” he said. He’s been in the trade since he was around 19, after studying tailoring in Palermo. He’d had a shop there for a while but decided to leave for the U.S. after finding the locals’ attitude a little too laid back. Customers there, he said, would drop off a suit, and then not return to pick it up until months later.
When he moved to the United States, he tried to get his parents to come over, too. He wasn’t successful, but after getting work as a tailor, he’d send checks home to them. This he did regularly for over 30 years. “I took care of them 110 percent,” he said.
His generosity has also extended outside the family. One example of this is at his own home, a two-family house he owns and has a tenant living in one of the apartments. His previous tenant was an older woman who’d become ill and then didn’t pay her rent for a year before she died. “People said, ‘You should take her to court.’ I’m not going to take an old woman to court,” said DiGirolamo. He now rents the place to someone else and hasn’t ever increased the rent. “That’s me,” he said. “I don’t take from nobody.”
Meanwhile, customers have already been mourning the loss of their talented tailor.
“He’s like an icon of the neighborhood,” said Jack Goldfarb, a longtime customer from Peter Cooper Village. Despite the shop always being a jumble, “He was always in demand because he did excellent work and charged very little. He was beloved by everybody.”
While at the shop, another customer, Pascal Blake, said he thought the building’s owner was wrong to raise DiGirolamo’s rent.
“It’s a lot of money for a small shop,” said Blake, who works in real estate. “He should pay $2,000.” To DiGirolamo, Blake added, “You can find something else.”
But in response, the veteran tradesman didn’t agree or disagree. His mind may already be elsewhere, as he’s now considering spending his retirement as a volunteer at his church. “I want to help people. I’ll do anything,” he said.
By Sabina Mollot