Thursday, March 09, 2006

The History of My Surma

At 11 East Seventh Street is Surma, the beloved Ukrainian store founded in 1918 by Myron Surmach who passed away in July 2003. Since his passing, the shop has continued under the watchful eye of his widow, Magda.

The shop is ground zero for Ukrainian (and sometimes Carpatho-Rusyn) books and gifts, including folk blouses and ceramics. They also stock an array of icons, pysanky and much more.

Myron Surmach told the story of the shop's founding in his autobiography Istorija mojeji Surmi: Spohady Knyharja (The History of My Surma: Memories of a Bookseller, Vydavnyctvo Surma: New York, 1982).

Surmach was born in 1893 in Zheldec', Ukraine, and came to the United States in 1910, initially settling in Wilkes-Barre and arriving in Manhattan in 1913. The following year he was active in the founding of a Ukrainian Sokol (gymnastic organization with heavy nationalist overtones).

The founding was aided by the already existing Czech Sokol whose building still stands at 420 East 71st Street. Croatian members of the Czech Sokol also helped out. The Ukrainian branch, however, did not keep the name Sokol, preferring the more Ukrainian-tinged term Sich.

The story of Surma bookstore began when Surmach and two others opened a small shop for the Sich, called Sichovyj Bazar, at 34 East Seventh Street. He notes that at the time there were several other Ukrainian bookstores at the time, including Rusky Bazar and Ukrajinska Knyharnja. There were no Ukrainian restaurants, however, with Polish and Russian ones dominating the area. By 1934, after a move to Avenue A and back, the shop ended up at its current address and was renamed Surma.

That year, Surmach met with a representative of Victor Records and began selling Ukrainian records in the shop. The strong sales encouraged more companies to make more Ukrainain LPs and Surmach played a big role in the large number of Ukrainian recordings made at that time.

The new waves of Ukrainian immigrants and refugees arriving during and after World War II increased the market for LPs, as well as the fortunes of Surma. After World War II, however, the close-knit community in the East Village slowly began to dissipate as more and more of its members entered the middle class and moved out to the suburbs. Surma is still going, but, as with many other Ukrainian establishments in the area, the future is uncertain.

Though Istorija mojeji Surmi was only publilshed in Ukrainian, it remains a valuable document of life in the old Ukrainian East Village (and in the old Ukrainian colony at North Beach - today the site of LaGuardia Airport). Copies should still be available for sale at Surma.

1 comment:

Orion said...

Hi Slavs of New York.
Thanks for the wonderful article on the history of Surma. I am a librarian and had no idea that Mr. Surmach wrote a book on his life. Too bad it has not been translated into English. It must be a great piece of local New York history.

There is one small error that I want to set straight. There were two Myron Surmachs. The father started the store and was a beekeeper. He had the most wonderful buckwheat honey. The son was the one who ran the store from the 1960s until his death in 2003.

Here is a picture of me and my wife in a Surma dress from 1970: