Sch’dy fur shop among region’s oldest businesses

Owner marks 50 years with store
Beyer Furs owner Christa Bray, inset, and one of her work areas where she does alterations and repairs and makes accessories.
Beyer Furs owner Christa Bray, inset, and one of her work areas where she does alterations and repairs and makes accessories.

Christa Bray says that the business that saved her is slowly dying. 

For the past 50 years, Bray has worked for Beyer Furs in Schenectady, and for the past 30 years she has been owner of the shop, now on Union Street.

But the business goes much further back than that.

Beyers was established in 1837, under the name Van Horne and Sons, making it one of the oldest businesses in the tri-state area. It was recently recognized by the state Assembly and the City of Schenectady for its longevity.

 Since its founding, Beyers has been owned and run by a variety of families. But Bray believes that the line will stop with her.

“Everything is going to phase out with me,” Bray said. 

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the business was half retail and half maintenance and repair. 

Bray first moved to Schenectady from Germany in the 1960s after she married. She worked at a department store doing alterations and tailoring until she was laid off. 

She was devastated, as she had just had her first child and needed work. 

Unsure of what to do, she began wandering through the city, trying to figure out her next move. 

That’s when she saw the sign for Beyer Furs on Barrett Street. 

“I went in and they hired me right on the spot,” Bray said. When she lived in Germany, she went to school for fashion design and through her department store job, she had some experience working with furs. 

The place was a perfect match. 

“It was really a godsend,” Bray said.

Bray worked to restyle many of the coats that she and Thaddeus Lewkowicz — the previous owner of Beyer — would buy from the fur market in New York City.

Although she put a stop on the retail side of the business four years ago, Bray still restyles the coats and makes accessories out of the excess pieces of fur. 

“People want their coats shortened nowadays,” Bray said. 

Fur is not all about fashion though, as Bray is always quick to point out.

“For instance, your grandmother had a coat and she gives it to you. Even though maybe you’re not the greatest fan of furs, you’re going to take care of the coat because it stands for something bigger than the coat,” Bray said. 

This is the driving force behind why she has stayed in the business. 

Over the years, customers have come into her former location on Wall Street and to her current shop at 1408 Union St. with a variety of personal dilemmas.

Some come in because a fur garment that has been in their family for years is damaged and needs to be clean, but still has the scent of their loved one.

“How can you as a person with a heart say no and not prepare something like this and not be there? It represents what we are as people and what we believe in,” Bray said.

Many of her customers are lifers, not only because she is one of the only fur shops in the greater Capital Region, but because of the relationships she’s formed with them.

Barbara Piper of Scotia has been going to Beyer Furs for around 40 years. 

“She is very remarkable and goes out of her way for people,” Piper said of Bray. 

Piper still wears her fur coats regularly and always heads into Beyer Furs to get them altered or cleaned. 

“How many other businesses can say that they’ve had the same customers for 50 years?” Bray said, citing her amazement at the longevity of it. 

But she’s also coming to terms with what she thinks might be the demise of the shop and the industry. 

“The industry has really changed,” Bray said. She points to climate change, lifestyle changes and to a mercurial economy for the turns of the fur industry and of her own business.  

When the fur industry first came into the area, people needed the extra protection from the biting cold Schenectady winters and along their horse and buggy rides.

But now the winters aren’t so bad because most of the population drive their own cars. The only extra coverage needed is on the walk from the house/work to the car. 

“But I always hope for the industry,” Bray said. 

Perhaps she has reason for this hope, as two-thirds of the women’s collections shown on the runways during fall 2016’s New York City Fashion Week included fur. 

Closer to the Capital Region’s roots, the fur industry is what helped to build Schenectady up in the mid-1700s.

According to the Schenectady County Historical Society, after 1727, fur traders began using Schenectady as a fur trade route to Detroit. 

Schenectady’s location along the Mohawk River made it the ideal location for the trade. 

“Many of Schenectady’s original settlers were fur traders, including founder Arendt Van Curler. Schenectady’s location on the Mohawk River would have made it a perfect place for fur trading.

Unfortunately the fur trade was controlled by governor Peter Stuyvesant in Albany who restricted Schenectady’s settlers to farming, those who tried to take part in the fur trade were arrested,” said Michael Mahoney of the Historical Society. 

But in 1727, the ban was lifted and the trade helped the city to grow. 

When Bray can no longer run Beyer Furs, it will not only mark the end of what is not only one of the oldest shops in the Capital Region, but a founding industry of the City of Schenectady. 

Bray has not had any help in the shop for a long time and she would have to train and work for months with anyone who would want to go into the business.

But even then, she is hopeful of the possibility of finding an apprentice of sorts and Bray has contemplated teaching at local colleges or with community programs so that the skills she’s learned can be passed on in some way. 

“Because my customers are unique people. All of them have achieved something in life, and a fur is to show that they’ve achieved something, it’s like buying a diamond.” 

This is what made her stay in the business for five decades. 

Categories: Life and Arts

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