From former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to legendary CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite, it is hard for Joel Halpern to recall all of the famous customers who have shopped at Jesse Halpern’s Skate and Tennis Shop.
For Halpern, counting the list of celebrities that he said also includes Cy Young Award winners, U.S. Open tennis champions, Olympic medalists and world heavyweight championship boxers who have frequented the Village of Great Neck Plaza shop his father opened more than 70 years ago is really pointless anyway.
“Some people, they want to emphasize stars shop here, so you should shop here,” Halpern said. “That wasn’t what (my father) was about at all.”
Opened in December of 1940, Jesse Halpern’s Skate and Tennis Shop is the oldest operating business in Great Neck Plaza.
The reason behind the longevity of the tiny shop at 99 Cutter Mill Road is really what Joel Halpern characterized as his adherence to Jesse Halpern’s most cherished core business value.
“My father’s emphasis was always on the customers,” Halpern said. “He always felt that they were the celebrities. We really didn’t talk about the famous people that came in here.
“I remember when I found out about Jackie Kennedy,” he added, “I was sitting at home and (my father) just sort of nonchalantly mentioned it at the dinner table.”
Joel Halpern has singularly operated Jesse Halpern’s Skate and Tennis Shop since 1994 when his father Jesse died at the age of 83. He said he has worked at the family’s business since the early 1960s, when as a young boy he used a magnet to pick up screws that fell on the floor of the shop.
“I feel like all of these customers come in here and they have such a long tradition of shopping here,” Halpern said. “I can’t tell you how many little girls that I fit that come in with their children and I fit them. It’s really kind of a nice environment.”
Serving Jesse Halpern’s Skate and Tennis Shop’s second-, third- and fourth-generation customers are what make operating the business worthwhile, Halpern said.
“It’s got a nice feeling in here,” he said. “I like my customers. Every once in a while I get a pain in the neck, but I think I’m really lucky, I get a lot of good customers in here.”
Although Jesse Halpern opened his shop in Great Neck Plaza 71 years ago, Joel Halpern said his father’s career actually began about a decade earlier with the U.S. enveloped in the Great Depression.
“When people couldn’t find a job, he always seemed to have two or three jobs during the Depression,” Halpern said of his father. “One of the jobs was teaching figure skating on the weekends.”
It was a job, which Halpern said suited his father quite nicely.
“Evidently, he must have been pretty good at it because he taught some of the more notable families in New York City, like Gloria Vanderbilt, that was one of his students,” Halpern said.
When the World’s Fair was being planned for New York City in 1939, Joel Halpern said his father’s career as a skate and tennis shop owner actually took off.
“When they had the World’s Fair and they were building the city rink, somehow he got involved as a non-paid advisor,” Halpern said. “Evidently they liked the way that he helped him. They gave him the shop inside the rink.”
Following the World’s Fair, Halpern said his father’s business began to grow exponentially.
“I guess Robert Moses must have liked the way that he handled himself because in a period of, probably over the next few years, he ended up having all the shops in all of the city rinks,” Halpern said.
From New York City, Jesse Halpern’s shops began to spring up across the metropolitan area.
“He ended up having the main store here,” Halpern said of Jesse Halpern’s Skate and Tennis Shop location in Great Neck Plaza. “He had lots of different shops that were around the island and in New Jersey and in the city. Mostly, the city shops were his main shops.”
Since that time, the Halpern family has specialized in providing tennis, ice skating and roller skating equipment for families in Great Neck and beyond.
“I draw people from a pretty wide area,” Halpern said. “A lot of people come from New Jersey. They come from Connecticut. I have some European customers. I have one customer who was the collegiate champion in Japan. I’ve been selling her skates for, I don’t know, 12, 13, 14 years now.”
And recently, the Great Neck business community has begun recognizing Halpern for the success of his business.
In April, Halpern was given the Robert E. Freeman Retailer Award at the Great Neck Chamber of Commerce’s annual awards dinner at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s Melville Hall in the Village of Kings Point.
Halpern was also honored at Great Neck Plaza’s Board of Trustees meeting earlier this month for his family’s contribution to the village’s business community.
“Joel enjoys touching the lives of his patrons with his passion for skating and tennis and his kindness and caring for always making sure the customer is satisfied,” Village of Great Neck Plaza Mayor Jean Celender said. “It is important to note this business has served generations of Great Neck’s children over the years with learning to skate and play tennis.”
The expertise gained from nearly five decades of serving his customers is one of the main reason’s people have been coming back to Jesse Halpern’s Skate and Tennis Shop, Joel Halpern said.
“I think the main reason why people come in here is, they’re not getting some kid who plays hockey who’s 15-years-old or 17-years-old who knows nothing about skating as far as fitting,” Halpern said.
Customers to the shop are usually greeted by Joel Halpern, who does all of the skate fitting and restringing of tennis rackets.
Halpern said he rarely hires any employees, aside from the occasional part-time helper during the shop’s busiest season. He said the store is at its busiest from September through March, which is the height of ice-skating season.
“I sit down, I spend a lot of time with each customer,” Halpern said. “My attitude isn’t, you’re spending x-amount of dollars, so you get x-amount of time. I want to get everyone into a skate that they’re really going to do well in so they enjoy the sport so they can continue with the sport.”
Along with skating and tennis expertise, patrons of Jesse Halpern’s Skate and Tennis Shop also receive a bit of a history lesson from Halpern.
In a corner of the shop, Halpern has created a “mini-museum” to the history of ice and roller skating. His collection includes ice skates from the late 1800s, along with exhibits on famous ice skaters Axel Paulsen, Ulrich Salchow, Jackson Haines and Madge Syers.
“Very few people know about this,” Halpern said. “I talk to pros, nobody has any idea about the history of skating. “I like history. It’s part of my passion for skating.”
Halpern said he put the “mini-museum” together to celebrate the shop’s 70th anniversary.
“People get a big kick out of this,” he said. “I was surprised how many people, like Russian coaches from Brooklyn, show up for this.”
And for Halpern, that’s a very good thing.
“I find that in this particular economy, you really have to have a niche that you fit into and you’ve got to be really good at it,” he said. “I don’t advertise. I’m word of mouth, but I get a tremendous amount of recommendations and that’s how the business stays alive.”
It is also how the business will remain intact for year to come, Halpern said.
“I’ve got a lot of pride in it,” he said of his shop. “I really enjoy doing this.”