There's something Being John Malkovichian about the address of The Silversmith: 184 3/4 West 4th Street. The storefront lives up to its fractional figures, too—you would walk by it if you didn't know it was there. That's probably why the numbers above the door are so comically large.
Recently we dropped into the small jewelry shop, where there's hardly room to turn around. Owner Ruth Kuzub has been operating out of the space since the 1960s, where she sells her own handmade jewelry, as well as jewelry she buys from all over the world—"I just buy or make only what I like."
According to Ruth, around the 1930s there was a homeless artist named Rebajes who would sell his jewelry in the alleyway that is now Silversmith. Since the building owner liked him, he allowed him to put a roof over the alleyway, and Rebajes and his wife sold jewelry and also lived in the space. According to one account, "They slept in the back between newspapers on the floor. Because they were so poor, they ate cafeteria food that people left on their plates."
In the 1940s, Chase Brass & Copper took an interest in his work and helped him set up a real shop on fancy 5th Avenue, which opened in the 1950s—this is where he found some real success as a jeweler. Some of his older work is on eBay, and you can read more about him here.
Now back to Ruth, who took over the storied storefront in the '60s, and at one point rented a 2-floor apartment upstairs for $150/month. Now those apartments rent closer to $5K/month. Meanwhile, the storefront now next to Ruth's sells mass-produced, cheap jewelry with no soul—"I don't pay attention to them," she says.
If you plan to drop by the Silversmith, as you should, it's not always open—you'll have to try your luck, and don't bother if it's raining. While there, photographer Sai Mokhtari spoke with a longtime local, who said at one point two men held Ruth up at knifepoint and robbed her store of a bunch of gold pieces. She now only opens if he's able to set up outside, so the store has expanded into the sidewalk and he mans that area while looking out for her. (If it rains, she can't open because there's no awning for him to set up under.) Be sure to buy some jewelry when you visit, but also carve out some time to talk to these two.
In the video below, she declares: "I'm the last artist of all the artists that were on the street. I'm not dead yet."
Additional reporting by Sai Mokhtari.