Barry Stephen Lewis was born on July 4, 1945, in Manhattan, at the old Polyclinic Hospital on 50th Street, across from the old Madison Square Garden. He grew up in Woodhaven, Queens, a neighborhood he described as “the Italian/Irish/German/Polish/Greek/Jewish New York version of any Thornton Wilder town in Ohio.” His father, Larry, was the proprietor of Lewis of Woodhaven, a department store that was a fixture on Jamaica Avenue — and the family business, started by his grandfather, Louis Lewis, in 1937. His mother, Frances (Distler) Lewis, worked alongside her husband.
The store sold everything from pots and pans to silk flowers to underwear, and neighborhood denizens always asked Barry and his brother, known as “the Lewis kids,” if “if the store carried a certain whatsit,” Barry once wrote.
“They assumed,” he said, “every Lewis baby came out of the womb knowing when three-pronged outlets would be in stock.”
Barry’s family lived in the Wyckoff, a 1920s-era courtyard building behind the store — a two-minute commute. When Larry retired two decades ago, Jeffrey and a cousin, Robby, took over the business. It closed for good in 2004.
Barry grew up with a love of the mom-and-pop store and the melting pot that was his neighborhood. He studied art and architectural history, among other subjects, at the University of California, Berkeley; the Sorbonne in Paris; the University of Jerusalem; and the New School of Social Research in Manhattan. Fluent in French, he lived in Paris for a few years, which inspired a new appreciation of New York City’s architecture when he returned.
His time in Europe, he said, made him look at his home in a fresh way. But before he began his career as a historian, he worked as a taxi driver — and, for a period in the late ’60s or early ’70s, his brother recalled, as a retailer. His Greenwich Village store was called Instant Pants, and it sold the styles of the time.