Lable Horowitz, who opened Church Street Surplus in 1971, dies at 87

Photo by Claudine Williams

Lable Horowitz, who brought the business that would become Church Street Surplus from Alphabet City to the neighborhood in 1971, died on March 28. His daughters, Michelle Roth and Susan Levine, said the cause was an aneurysm. It felled him on a Thursday; his last day of work was that previous Monday, when he commuted by subway — as he had for 52 years — from his longtime home in Chelsea.

“He was square with a sense of what was hip, and he was a character of iconic stature,” his daughters wrote. “He will be sorely missed as a pillar of the community and a fixture on Church Street.”

He certainly was a fixture, in the same way that this neighborhood once had Peter Panayiotou at Gee Whiz and Andy Koutsoudakis at Tribeca’s Kitchen, watching over us. He was always, always perched on a stool inside the store or on the sidewalk, keeping an eye the block and witnessing its change over the decades — not to mention hawking what was (and continues to be) the most remarkable, chock-a-block, stuffed-to-the-ceiling collection of vintage and new surplus from around the world. (Follow their IG account and you will be browsing over there soon enough. Or watch for CSS in the TC holiday shopping guide.)

Lable was born on Sept. 11, 1936, on Grand Street (after 2001, he would only celebrate his birthday on Sept. 10) and spent some elementary school summers selling ice cream outside the AT&T building at 32 Avenue of the Americas. He was in the Army from 1955 to 1957, and afterwards was doing the trucking for his brother’s stores in the city. After he married, his father-in-law suggested he get into used clothing. He opened his first store in 1964 at 11th and Avenue B in Alphabet City and moved the business to Church and Canal in 1971. “Drugs were becoming a real problem in Alphabet City, and this area had surplus stores — there were a bunch on Canal, even one that sold airplane parts,” Lable recalled in 2016. “Hank Matthau, Walter’s brother, had a used clothing store on Broadway off Canal.”

He raised his family in Chelsea, moving there with his wife in 1972, and was still commuting from his home there every day by subway, up and down the stairs, until the Monday before he died. His wife survives him.

Photo by Claudine Williams

The store is stuffed to the gills with treasures. When I stopped by yesterday to chat with Susan and Michelle, I was caught in a rainstorm and so left with a $19 army-issued raincoat from Eastern Europe plus patch pockets from old Navy shirts for my nephews. Over the years, Lable would buy odds and ends of anything and everything: sirens, buttonless dress shirts, an Uncle Sam sculpture from the Spanish-American War, railroad trestles, hospital traction bars — and of course piles and piles military clothing from the US and around the world.

He especially loved finding garb from World War II; a leather pilot jacket goes for $3,500 and up, especially if it’s seen battle, he said.

His daughters have been helping with the store over the years, more as Lable’s hearing started to fail. (They had their own shop for a decade, selling vintage textiles, and took a break to raise their families.) Michelle runs the digital side of the business, both on Instagram and eBay, where they take online orders. And Susan handles the shop and merchandise acquisition. They know better than to make any big decisions while grieving, so will keep things just as they are for now. “We hope to be a fixture in the neighborhood for years to come,” they wrote on Instagram.

Lable loved the comings and goings of Canal and Church, got his hair cut around the corner at Ilya’s, ate out mostly in Chinatown; for a Chelsea guy, he was about as local as they come. But the store attracted people from across the city and beyond. This from his Spotlight feature in 2016, which gives Lable the last word:

What percentage of your business is local?
About 60 percent is from New York City. Costume designers for the movies, TV and theater like to shop here. They’re wearing our vests in “Newsies.” The new TV show “Vinyl” bought a lot of dresses. The new musical “Cagney” has our clothes. Woody Allen’s dresser was in here. The young tech guys who work in the AT&T building shop here—so do the young workers at the fancy stores. Musicians come but we don’t know who they are. Also a lot of tourists, especially from Japan. We’re in every guidebook.

Photo by Claudine Williams

Tell me a crazy customer story.
There was a woman who bought $4,000 or more on all kinds of things. I had no idea what she was going to do with it—nothing fit her! She said, “I’m going to max out my ex-husband’s credit cards.” And Betsey Johnson came in on roller skates during the late 70s or early 80s. She climbed the ladder while wearing roller skates. I told her never to come in again.

Where do you eat/drink/shop around here?
The place next to McDonald’s on Canal [August Gatherings, formerly known as Canal Best Restaurant]. Excellent Dumpling on Lafayette. The Westside Coffee Shop — we all know it as Johnny’s. It was on Canal, then Johnny took over Dina’s Diner. He’s been a friend for 40 years. Saluggi’s, of course. Bill [of Saluggi’s] buys the newspaper, gives it to me to do the puzzles, then I give it to Radio Rob.

Who’s Radio Rob? Does he have a store on Canal?
He walks around. He puts radios in cars.

What does the future hold for Church Street Surplus?
I’ll be here till they carry me out.


1 Comment

  1. I made my first visit to, and purchase from, Church St Surplus on March 18, and met Lable then. He was, as you said, perched on a stool near the entrance. I bought handkerchiefs and ties for my son’s birthday dinner a few hours hence. I introduced myself (I know Lable’s wife, slightly) and we shook hands. I like to think I may have been his last new customer.

    Pam, this post, like all of your obits/eulogies/tributes, seemed to roll out of you effortlessly (even if it didn’t). You do so much to bind together our neighborhood.