Furnishing Credentials

O n the third floor of ACME Vintage Furniture, a 1950s radio ad bursts out of a gramophone like a shout from an old-timey police officer. A whistle squeals, and a voice yells: “STOP! Don’t move! … Until you call ACME Moving Co.”

ACME’s story has been unfolding for more than a hundred years now, and the old radio advert is, of course, out of date. The business’s once-busy moving operation is long gone. As the current name indicates, it’s now focused exclusively on selling furniture, mostly from bygone eras.

The first two floors of the building are like an unearthed time capsule, filled with home and office furniture stuffed to the walls and sometimes the ceiling, with narrow alleys for browsing. There are boxy iron file cabinets and typewriters to match; retro office chairs to go with desks both grand and utilitarian; mid-century modern table lamps and milky, Art Deco hanging ones; and pieces that might do well in the Jetsons’ living room. And if you’re invited up to the third floor, you’ll find another time capsule, one that delves much, much further into local history, back to the city’s colonial days: the remarkable private museum of Rob Greenberg, ACME’s creative director and grandson of the company’s founder.

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ACME has gone by many names, but the first was American Moving Company. Greenberg isn’t sure of the exact date his grandfather started hauling furniture. “If you asked him I think he’d say the day he came to America is the day he started.” That drops the pin somewhere in 1912, when Joseph Greenberg and brothers Sam and Maurice arrived from Russia.

Both Joseph and Sam served in WWI, and upon returning, the former got moving in earnest. Sam and Maurice went to find their own success as businessmen, but Joseph stuck with American Moving Co., lugging furniture through the Great Depression. He expanded AMC into an early storage space business, and when clients didn’t pay their bills, Joseph would empty the unit and sell the stored furniture. Thus the furniture side of the business was born.

To keep ahead of his competition, Joseph used sharp business tactics. He threw up four-story broadsides on his buildings, changed the name of the company to ACME Moving & Storage Co.—a 1920s-era strategy that placed businesses higher in the newly alphabetized phonebooks—and even opened up his own competition, Central Furniture Showrooms, right down the street. If customers were hesitant at the main ACME showroom on State Street, Joseph would tell them, “Try the guy down the street.”

The business peaked under Joseph in the 1940s and ’50s, when the company had at least four buildings, several moving trucks and regular newspaper and radio ads. But as Eisenhower’s “Interstate Highway System” initiative wound its way to New Haven, disaster was looming for ACME.

In preparation for the arrival of I-95 and I-91, and in a spirit of general “modernization,” mayor Richard C. Lee used eminent domain to buy and demolish thousands of structures in the city, often dividing or outright destroying neighborhoods in the process. Residences and businesses along State Street, among many others, were razed to improve traffic flow off the new highways into the city, and parking lots rose up to receive the expected automotive deluge.

ACME property was among the casualties. Rob says he’s glad in a sense that his grandfather, who died in 1966, didn’t live to see the demolition of his State Street building in 1968.

It was at the age of 25 that Alan Greenberg, Joseph’s son and Rob’s father, took over the business. While ACME was left hurting from the loss of the State Street location, Alan correctly “read the barometer,” as Rob puts it, of New Haven’s changing landscape and was ready for the arrival of office-heavy companies to the city.

Under Alan, ACME caught its second wind as the ACME Office Furniture Company Incorporated. It expanded to the 50,000-square-foot Chamberlain building (now the site of Artspace, among other things), and from there ACME decked the halls of corporate workspaces with office chairs, desks, tables and cabinets. This wave peaked in the ’80s, with large clients like Southern New England Telephone, the New Haven Register, Yale and City Hall.

But history, it seems, never tires of repeating itself. What happened with Joseph’s State Street location under Mayor Lee essentially happened to his son’s Chamberlain showroom under Mayor John DeStefano. As part of the redevelopment of the 9th Square, Alan lost his lease and had to relocate 50,000 square feet of inventory to warehouses. Without the Chamberlain’s expansive showroom, business suffered. After downsizing, the current location at 33 Crown became both warehouse and showroom, the last of the ACME properties.

Today, like his father and grandfather before him, Rob is trying to read the city’s barometer, hoping to retrofit ACME for New Haven’s future. While living for many years in New York City, he saw tenements become million-dollar apartments and old rail lines become elevated parks. He saw neighborhoods rescue and celebrate their histories with small local museums.

Rob believes New Haven is ripe to undergo the same transformation, and believes the ACME building can be a key part of it, as a museum. Neither his father nor the rest of the family are sold on Rob’s vision, but in a way ACME already is a museum, of vintage furniture.

The only difference is, you can take the stuff home.

ACME Furniture Company
33 Crown St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 11am-3pm
(203) 787-0243

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photo 1, of ACME’s State Street building circa 1966, provided courtesy of Rob Greenberg. Photos 2 and 3 by Dan Mims. Photo 4 by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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