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Profile: Libby Glucksman

John DeStefano recalls guiding many visitors through the streets of New Haven during his tenure as mayor. He would take them to the obvious sites, such as Yale’s campus and art museums and East Rock Park. But there was one stop on DeStefano’s tour that no guidebook listed: Sidney’s Tailoring and Cleaning.

On the corner of Chapel and Norton, DeStefano and his visitors would reach the tiny storefront. With its striped vintage awning and store name printed in large block letters, Sidney’s Tailoring and Cleaning was an unexpected New Haven landmark for 60 years. As of November, the shop has closed.

No larger than about fifteen by thirty feet, Sidney’s was nestled in a residential strip of New Haven’s Edgewood neighborhood. Pots of yellow, pink, and orange marigolds sat on the sidewalk in front of the shop, which shared an aging green complex with Helen Grocery.

Inside, rows of clothing racks left room for little else. A collection of business cards and family wedding and graduation photos was tacked to the walls. Boxes of cleaning supplies and bouquets of flowers delivered from long-time customers were strewn across a table. A Rosa DeLauro for Congress sign sat on a shelf.

Libby Glucksman, who founded the shop with her late husband Sidney exactly 60 years ago, greeted customers with her thick Polish accent. At 87 years old, Libby has a hunched, petite frame and sports a lively smile. Dressed casually in a red top with gold sequins and a grey knitted sweater, she sat comfortably in her usual post at the front counter.

Libby ushered me to sit down beside her. “Believe me, you’re gonna get an A on this!” she assured me.

According to Libby, hundreds of students had frequented the shop over the years to interview the Glucksmans for school reports and newspaper articles. Sidney and Libby Glucksman have been sought-out storytellers. In addition to representing a beloved New Haven mom-and-pop staple, they embody the strength of survivors.

Born and raised in western Ukraine, Libby is a survivor of the Holocaust. In 1939, Nazis invaded her hometown, rounding up the community’s young Jewish men with promises of work but instead leading them to execution. Soon, Libby and her family were forced to relocate to the town’s Jewish ghetto.

Libby recalled the Nazis’ arrival in harrowing detail: “Many religious Jews found refuge in the Synagogue, thinking that God was going to protect them…but the Germans took them out of the Synagogue, put them all in front of the Church, and made us look and shot them all. All the men.”

At age nine, Libby fled her hometown with her sister. They hid in the woods of Ukraine during the day and at night aided Russian resistance fighters, who placed bombs under German trains. For years, Libby and her sister helped to cook and sew clothes for the underground resistance organization, of which her older brother was a member.

Five years later, Libby and her siblings returned to their community to find their town decimated by the war. She then found refuge at the Bad Reichenhall Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, where she met Sidney Glucksman, a fellow survivor who would later become her husband.

Upon discovering a Jewish organization in Germany that aided survivors of the Holocaust to immigrate to America, Libby boarded the Marina Madeline and arrived in New York in 1947. It was the same army boat that Sidney had taken to New York just a year earlier.

“He read in the paper that I was coming. He saw my name, came to the boat, and picked me up,” Libby said. “He was in Brooklyn, and I was in the Bronx with my aunt, and we started dating. Then we got married.”

The couple soon relocated to New Haven (they wanted a smaller town), where three generations of the Glucksman family currently reside. Sidney immediately began work as a tailor, while Libby found a job at a local factory. “We had nothing. We were so ambitious,” she remembered.

Eventually, their clients and friends in the community encouraged them to open their own tailoring shop. “They really wanted to help us, so we went to the bank, borrowed some money, opened up this place, and thank God we were successful,” Libby recalled.

In addition to running the shop, Sidney traveled to schools and universities across the country to share his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. According to Libby, Sidney never hesitated to pause his work in order to share his personal history. He often said, “If I’m alive, they should know.”

***

As Libby sorted through boxes and shelves in the back of the shop, she held up an assortment of souvenirs for me to see: newspaper clippings of stories about Sidney’s activism, a poster for Threads, a documentary about Sidney’s life, and honorary doctorate degrees awarded to the Glucksmans by Albertus Magnus College.

Beyond the physical accolades, Sidney and Libby have also won the love and respect of the thousands of customers who have passed through their shop—including DeStefano and Representative Rosa DeLauro. In an interview with The Politic, DeStefano fondly recalled the sense of community the Glucksmans created. “It was more than going to a tailor shop or a cleaner’s. It was visiting a friend,” he explained.

In an email correspondence with The Politic, DeLauro said something similar: “The strength and longevity of their business speaks to the quality of their work, the caliber of their character, and the extent to which they cared for their customers, who like me, returned again and again.”

When I called DeLauro’s office to schedule an interview, her staff said that DeLauro had stopped by the shop earlier that day to say goodbye to Libby before heading to D.C. to celebrate her reelection.

DeLauro’s husband, Stan, was especially close with Sidney. “Sidney always called Stan with a recommendation of a suit he should buy,” she recalled. Libby said it simply: her customers “are not really just customers. They are like relatives.”

***

For the past six decades, Libby maintained an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. work day. In the weeks leading up to the shop’s closing in 2018, however, she worked fewer hours and focused her energy on retirement.

Reflecting on the highs and lows of her career, Libby said, “My hardest moment was when I buried my husband when he passed away four years ago. If he were alive, we would be married for 65 years.” She continued, “My proudest moment would be when my husband was here and we were happy.”

Libby pointed to a small table where Sidney’s old sewing machine used to stand. “It’s hard for me. For many years, he was sitting right there and sewing, and I was sitting here.”

DeStefano recalled those days in his 2014 eulogy to Sidney. Every time DeStefano entered the shop, “Sidney’s whole face, expression, his very eyes smiled and lit up… It was like coming home. Every time.”

***

In the weeks before closing, paper signs taped to the front window read, “Sidney’s will be closing. Libby is retiring. Pick up all items by Thursday, Nov. 15. Thank you for your many years of support.”

When asked about what she will do with the clothing her customers have forgotten to pick up over the years, she declared, “I don’t sell nothing!” Libby plans on donating all the clothing left behind to the Jewish Community Center and other local organizations.

“I love this place,” she said, “but there comes a time for everything. I’ll try a different life. I’m looking for some volunteer work to do, because I’m not the type to stay home and do nothing.”

In addition to exploring service work, Libby hopes to spend more time with her family. She held up a framed photograph with “Three Generations” engraved at the top, pointing to the smiling faces of her children and grandchildren. She has two daughters, four granddaughters, and four great-grandchildren. “I’m 87 years old, and I was young when I got married,” she said with a chuckle.

For Libby, packing up shop was a bittersweet process. “I’m going to miss all the people, honey,” she said at the end of our interview. “All the beautiful people. Everybody was so nice to us. You cannot forget it, you know.”

***

What will become of the corner of Chapel and Norton? It’s unlikely that Sidney’s Tailoring and Cleaning—and the decades-long community it fostered—can ever be matched. In a city of growing superstores and chains, there are few establishments that are so uniquely New Haven’s.

“You can have a McDonald’s or a Five Guys or a Panera Bread or J.Crew anywhere. But there’s only one Sidney’s in the whole world. And they were on Chapel and Norton for three generations of time,” DeStefano said. “They made New Haven my hometown because we had Sidney and Libby. I’ll miss that.”