Categorized | Bronx Neighborhoods

A Century-Old Family Business Ponders its Future

credit: Beatriz Muylaert

Lipton family portraits on Mark Lipton’s office wall


Esther and Isaac Lipton founded their store in the Bronx more than 100 years ago. It is not a tea shop as their name might suggest, but Tremont Paint Supply Co. The paint store has passed from father to son over the years, and now, the couple’s great-grandson is at a crossroads.

Mark Lipton has to decide whether continuing to operate what may be the longest running business in the Bronx makes financial sense. Or whether he should sell the property now that real estate values are increasing in Kingsbridge.

Lipton defined his ongoing challenge as one many small businesses face: “generating enough revenue to keep the lights on.” He pondered how much revenue the store should generate to justify its maintenance. For Lipton, the decision is not just about finances, it’s personal too.

Isaac and Esther Lipton’s 1936 black book

Black book client notes

Tremont Paint Supply Co was named after the street it was first located on – Tremont Avenue – in the middle section of the Bronx. Lipton doesn’t know why his great-grandparents, Esther and Isaac, a Jewish immigrant couple, decided to open a paint shop in 1907. Esther lived into her high nineties, but she was a quiet woman who didn’t speak much about business.

credit: Lipton family archive

Esther and Isaac Lipton wedding day circa 1900s

Esther “was the brains of the operation,” said Lipton. He recounted how things worked at a time when women, such as his great-grandmother, weren’t usually at the front of a business.

“When people came in and she had to make decisions she would say, ‘Well, let me speak to Mr. Lipton, he’s at the back.’ And he wouldn’t be. She would go to the back of the store, have a cup of tea or coffee for ten minutes, then tell the customer whatever she had decided.”

The store moved to Claremont years later, when Isaac and Esther’s son Jack ran it, and it was only in 1968 that it made its final move to its current location on Broadway, when Mark’s father took over.

The previous location had become unsafe, Lipton said. “It had gotten so bad there that my father would keep the door closed and locked, and they would only let you in if they knew you.”

credit: Lipton family archive

Jack Lipton working at his desk circa 1965


credit: Lipton family archive

William (Billy) Lipton standing in front of the Broadway store











Lipton was five at the time. He remembers coming in as a child and playing through the basement of the neighboring Broadway stores, which were connected to one another, he said.

When Lipton was 25, he started working full-time at Tremont. Business was less competitive at that time. Lipton said Home Depot, founded in 1978, and Lowe’s, founded in 1964, weren’t concerns back then. “The only place to buy paint was at independent Benjamin Moore’s store,” said Lipton. It became more competitive throughout the years, and there are now two Lowe’s, five Home Depots, and eleven Sherwin Williams stores in a radius of eight miles.

And a new Sherwin Williams store is scheduled to open by the end of the year at a recently inaugurated mall in Broadway, less than a mile away from Lipton’s store.

“The environment for guys like me has changed dramatically,” said Lipton. He copes by adopting a proactive sales attitude, getting out of the store and trying to find business where it might not otherwise walk-in. Lipton also made a decision to not compete in price since he knew this was a battle he couldn’t win.

While the paint industry became part of a larger home decor industry, with chains adding other departments – flooring, kitchens, etc., Mark Lipton opted out. “At 55 years old it wouldn’t be the time to start expanding. I’m closer to the exit than I am to the entrance.”

credit: Junior Tapia

Mark Lipton at Broadway store

He instead chose to specialize in paint and focus on this niche. “Most sizable paint jobs will have some very special circumstances that not everybody deals with it.” He considers Tremont to be a repository of that knowledge, able to recommend and provide very specific products such as the paint for ceilings over 10 feet tall, designed in a way that when the dust hits the ground it is already dry.

He pushed the business growth by offering consulting services and pairing Tremont’s knowledge with the customers’ need, as well as doing some writing to industry outlets on the side.

At the store, half of Lipton’s revenues are from retail customers, the other half are from corporate customers. While industrial clients have a higher level of specificity on demands, as well as much larger volumes, retail customers have simpler requests, and color is still what drives the purchase.

Lipton’s customers have been loyal through the years, with some buying paint for decades including paint contractors who also inherited companies from their fathers. “We had a gentleman who died 4 or 5 years ago who was a customer of the store for 60 years,” said Lipton.

Paint has changed throughout the years, and products are now environmentally friendly. This was anchored by regulation. Lipton said there is little demand for the most environmentally friendly products available at the store since those are more expensive.

Carlos Diaz, responsible for Tremont Paint’s deliveries, talked about the process of picking a color while showing the wall where Benjamin Moore’s color palette is placed. He grabbed a tab and explained how slight differences can be, pointing out Sangria, displayed between Merlot Red and Rosy Apple.

There are two most common behaviors when choosing color – extremely decided and pragmatic people versus those who take a lot of time to choose. Tremont’s vendors are trained to help out by taking paint manufactures’ online courses. These companies trigger and keep track of color trends, and have teams dedicated to studying the subject.

Mark Lipton’s collection of paint cans, including one of lead paint

For more than 100 years and four generations, the Lipton family store has endured several changes in the borough – bridges were built to the island, crimes surged in the 60s, Irish families moved out, Hispanics and Latinos moved in. But this story might be coming to a close.

There is no fifth Lipton generation showing an interest in running the store. Lipton’s only daughter, Miranda, said the thought had crossed her mind but instead, she decided to pursue a career in journalism.

“It would have been really cool following my family’s footsteps, but I never really had an interest in it.”

Lipton plans to sell paint for the foreseeable future, but he doesn’t know whether the store his family started a century ago will still be around in the next 10 or 15 years.

Lipton is not alone. Other old-time store owners in the area encounter similar dilemmas. Connie Dennis runs Columbia Florist at 231st Street along with her sister. The family-run shop has been in Kingsbridge for almost 60 years, and Dennis is considering moving because of rising rents.

The Tremont family story may just be a sign of the times, as one of the Bronx’s oldest neighborhoods is going through a transformation. Bronx’s strip of Broadway has seen a couple of new malls and a number of chain stores, such as Staples, Carter’s and T.J. Maxx, pop-up in the area following the inauguration of River Plaza, home to a Target, in 2009.

There has been a 9% increase in the number of properties that changed hands in the Bronx during the first half of 2018, compared to the same time period last year, according to data from the Real Estate Board of New York. The number is much higher when you look specifically at stores: the number of retail properties with new owners has risen 65% from last year.

While most of the Lipton’s spent their lives in the Bronx, Mark Lipton moved to White Plains, a suburb north of the borough, years ago and commutes daily. He constantly weighs the balance between how much money the store makes selling paint and what he could earn by selling the property. This balance is becoming harder to maintain, but for as long as it does, Lipton plans to keep the business running and continue the family tradition, he said.

“I want the neighborhood to maintain a local flavor, but I don’t want to be the one carrying that.”


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