La Iberia

José Vázquez, propietor of La Iberia on West 14th Street.

Between the late 1920s and early 1930s, Jose Maria Vazquez was living in Brooklyn, N.Y. A Spanish immigrant, he worked in a clothing store owned by a man named Del Rios.  It was a few years later that he met and married Estela Vazquez Batista, an Argentine immigrant who had won a painting scholarship to come to the United States.  Little did they know that by 1951 they would own the top single unit specialty store in New York.

It began in 1937 when Jose and Estela opened a small store on 14th street in the heart of Little Spain. Seeing as Spain was going through a civil war, it had become difficult to make every-day purchases — things like mens’ underwear were among the most difficult to find.  But Estela, who was also a seamstress, sold underwear to an interested and supportive clientele while she, her husband and their two children lived in the back.

Within 10 years, and after the war was over, Jose and Estela had earned enough money to buy the entire building, which was auctioned off by a hospital.  They began a long process of architectural design and renovation that would lead to the re-opening of an entirely different store — a store that would become the city’s top single unit specialty store — La Iberia.

La Iberia opened up in 1951. The family lived on the third floor, while the second floor was used as a commercial office, and the ground floor and basement were used for sales and inventory.

According to Maximino, Jose and Estela’s son, “My father, because the investment he put into the building and architecture made it look really good, was able to get the brands that he needed.  He got what Spain wanted — the American brands.”

La Iberia attracted Spaniards both in Spain and New York.  When trade ships would come into the city from Spain, its workers and crewmen would flock to La Iberia as if it were Christmas — buying duffel-bag-sized bundles of clothing.  The store, which sold entirely American-name brands, also had a strong trade with offices.  People from companies like Port Authority or factories like Nabisco purchased their white shirts, cufflinks, belts, socks, stockings and slips from La Iberia.

Maximino recalls that the store was always packed, probably beyond capacity.  He also credits part of La Iberia’s success to the beautiful window designs.  “My mother was an artist by nature, so the windows always looked fantastic,” he said.  “At that point in time people still used windows.”

Besides its retail success, La Iberia also served as a type of daycare center.  The children from the block would gather at the garden behind the store while their parents were still at work.  The magnitude of the block’s sense of community was apparent.

By the 1960s, the mega-volume trade with Spain ended and was replaced by trade with Iberian and Venezuelan airlines.  “But it didn’t replace the quality of the boats,” said Maximino.  “Those were huge bundles; these were small.”

Once 1969 came about, tragedy struck the family when Jose passed away.  Within a year, La Iberia closed down.  But it wasn’t the end of the locale’s retail endeavors.  Maximino opened it back up as a women’s discount store (one of the first in the United States), which he named Low and Behold.  The new store sold designer-discount items, much like SIMS does today.  Maximino, however, was only in college when he opened it up, and though he was successful, he grew tired of running it — not to mention the styles were changing.  “Boutiques were more popular, and the hippie style was growing,” he said.

By the 1980s, Little Spain had essentially disappeared.  The boats no longer came, much of the Spanish community moved to Queens, and there was a major influx of Puerto Ricans.  “We once had a neighborhood, an association, an identity,” said Maximino.  “By the 1980s, that was gone.”

Low and Behold was open for over three years, but even though Maximino sold it, he was still interested in clothes.  He had been a buyer for his father since he was 14.  “Somehow I had the merchandising talent that what I bought sold.”  He moved on to becoming a designer, doing high-end-couture for a while and later moving on to handbags, which he is currently designing today.

Today, what was once La Iberia is a florist called L’Olivier.  Maximino is still the landlord of the building, and one of the only residents of Little Spain still left on the block.

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