One would be hard pressed to find a baker as busy as Herb Glaser is these days.
Between icing cookies and kneading dough, the Manhattan College alum is now preparing for retirement and the closure of Glaser’s Bake Shop, a family-owned business which has been servicing the Yorkville section of Manhattan and beyond for an astounding 116 years.
“It definitely was a tough decision to come to, because everyone comes in telling me how much they’ll miss us,” said Glaser, taking a brief break from his duties in the kitchen.
Herb co-owns the store with his brother John, and together they have been running the business, known for its black and white cookies and traditional German pastries, for decades.
Classical music fills the air as customers file in and out of the small shop on 1st Avenue, located just off East 87th Street. Many of the patrons waiting in the tiled foyer greet the staff working behind the display cases by name.
A crying child is soothed by a black and white cookie handed down by an employee, working diligently to package a dozen more for the child’s parent. Some customers yell, “Good luck!” or, “God bless ya, Herb!” as they turn to leave, cakes and pastries in hand.
The official announcement came in the form of a Facebook post on March 2, in which the Glaser family named the bake shop’s last day of operation as July 1, 2018.
“After many years of daunting hours and hard work, the third generation of bakers have come to the difficult decision to hang up their bakers hat and move towards retirement,” read the post.
While a retirement announcement would typically mark the gradual slowing down of work for most establishments, Glaser’s Bake Shop is experiencing quite the opposite, as the end of an era has spurred a wave of new business and intrigue into the store’s history.
For Glaser, it is something he simply grew up a part of.
“I’m still living in the same apartment, my family apartment,” said Glaser, referencing the living space located directly above the storefront. “I’ve never moved.”
The story begins in Waldsassen, a town in the northeastern region of Bavaria where Glaser’s family originated. Immigrating to America in the 1890s, his grandfather John Herbert Glaser first opened a bakery near the Bloomingdale’s flagship store on 59th Street, an establishment which did not last long at it’s then-location before moving up the East Side.
“[My grandparents] used to come up [to the Upper East Side], as this was a heavily German-populated neighborhood, especially German Catholics.” said Glaser. “So they came up to go to church here, saw the building was for sale, they bought it and moved the business here. That was 1902. April 2, 1902 was our opening day.”
Owning the entire building, the Glasers lived directly above where they worked at 1670 1st Avenue for several generations. When it came time for Herb to decide on a career, he initially chose something decidedly different than what was taking place below him.
“I intended on becoming a dentist, actually… Why? I’m really not sure! My parents said ‘Well, what do you think you wanna do?’ So I said ‘You know? Dentistry seems good!’” said Glaser, laughing.
“My father encouraged us all to go to college, and it was between Manhattan and Fordham. I think it was my guidance counselor in high school who had gone to Manhattan, so he suggested it to me.”
Glaser enrolled at MC in 1970, studying biology. He commuted from his family’s apartment while working at the bake shop part time until he graduated in 1974, at which point he had already began to look into continuing his education.
“I did apply to several dental schools and got on the waiting list for one of them, I didn’t get accepted to the others,” said Glaser. Following these decisions, he spent some time looking for other jobs in biology, hoping to work in a lab.
“A year after, in 1975, there was an opportunity to work full-time here, and my father asked me if I wanted to and I said ‘Yeah, I like this!’ I realized I really did like this work. I like doing things with my hands, definitely, that’s why I thought a lab tech would be something I could really like,” Glaser said.
As Glaser described his time at Manhattan, a timer went off on the other side of the kitchen. He excused himself, jogged over to an oven, opened it, rotated some cinnamon rolls and returned to answer more questions. He explained that with the announcement came a significant increase in business.
“It’s been crazy. It’s been the best thing for business, telling them that we’re closing! I mean last weekend we had a line to the door, all day long, out the door at some points.”
There has been an outpouring of sadness by those living in the community upon hearing the news, and over 500 comments were left in response to the original announcement on Facebook. Long time patrons lamented the fact that they would no longer be able to enjoy the same treats they have been enjoying for years.
“Most of [the customers] also congratulate me and wish me well in retirement. They’ll also say that it’s a sad thing for the neighborhood which, I agree, it is. It was a tough decision to come to, but this kind of work takes a toll on your body, I just can’t do it. it’s long hours, I’m on my feet all day,” he said.
In between answering questions, Glaser moved about the kitchen to answer the phone, wave to customers and check his ovens. He turned and pointed out a man from the New York Daily News waiting alongside the line of customers.
“He’s doing a kind of longer documentary-type thing. He was in earlier this morning, taking some pictures,” he said.
In addition to increased customers, the closure of Glaser’s Bake Shop has caused a minor media frenzy, as numerous news outlets and food blogs alike have been contacting Glaser to cover the story of yet another historic New York City business closing shop.
“We’ve had Channel 11, Channel 5, New York 1, AM New York, 1010 WINS” said Glaser, naming just a few of the news stations running stories about the shop, all of whom he has fielded questions from.
“Tired,” he said with a chuckle.
Some ask why the bake shop’s legacy cannot continue under new management, or with additional employees.
“Could I hire somebody else? Years ago, there were bakers looking for jobs, always, and now anybody that goes into the baking field wants to work in a fancy restaurant or hotel or something and not this type of baking.” said Glaser. “This type of bakery is a dying thing.”
Nevertheless, Glaser is happy upon looking back at what he has accomplished in his 43 years of full-time baking. He owns a home in New Paltz, N.Y., and says that he would like to do some more travelling now that he has the time.
“I have no regrets. I loved it. I still do. But I realized that it’s time, […] I want to be able to enjoy retirement a little bit.”
For now, he has three and a half months of business to look forward to, and if the way things are going now are any indication, they will be lively, busy months indeed.
“It’s good, we’ll go out with a bang and that’s the way I would wanna go out,” Glaser said.