Say you're in town from Kansas City and you remember that you've been meaning to pick up a German round snaffle bridle with a drop-nosed cavesson. So you head for H. Kauffman & Sons down on Manhattan's East 24th Street, with $89.50 in your hand. That's what they're getting for drop-nosed cavessons these days. Kauffman's is a very stylish and nationally famous saddlery and it is surprising to find it in a dowdy neighborhood of loft buildings, parked trucks and counter joints. Now 100 years old, Kauffman's caters to a clientele spanning the Kennedys, the Roosevelts and horsemen and women from Brazil to Saudi Arabia.
Kauffman's is a dusty, dark, three-story converted turn-of-the-century building containing everything the horse owner, horse lover or frustrated jockey could ever want, from curb chains to corner feeders, from pink hunt coats ($295 off the rack) to hoof knives ($3.95). A family business since 1875, Kauffman's is now in the hands of Bernie and his sons, Charles and Ronald, the fourth generation of Kauffmans in the business. Bernie, 70, suave and sporting in an English hacking jacket and a pencil-thin '30s mustache, can reflect on a life in the service of tack and saddles.
"Our business has always been steady," he says, "but recently, the fashion world has discovered riding apparel. I guess it's the kids with Levi's and Western clothes." One of the big sellers this year is a canvas and rubber Newmarket boot that an English stableboy would feel at home in, but it's become a hot fashion item in the glitter set, and Kauffman's is selling them at $27.95 and running out of stock.
Aside from having a saddlemaker-bootmaker and a tailor who can whip up a hunt coat to your measurements, Bernie Kauffman is a fashion designer in his own right. "Back in the '30s," he recalls, "we sold Western shirts to rodeo cowboys, as we still do today. One of them got injured when a buttonhole on his shirt got caught on a bull's horn. So he came back and said he wanted a shirt without buttonholes. I went to a tailor in Philadelphia and we made the first cowboy shirt with snaps. We had to use glove snaps then, and it was difficult to make them work. Now they all have snaps."
April 25, 1976
Among the famous patrons of Kauffman's was Al Smith. Not much of a horseman, but a man with a penchant for fine headgear, Smith and Bernie Kauffman had an odd deal. Kauffman likes to tell about it over the noise of trucks in a traffic jam outside. "Al would come in and tell me, 'Bernie, the big hick governor of Utah is coming to town and he's going to present me with a ten-gallon Stetson. He'll expect me to give him my derby in return. These derbies cost too much so I want one of your old ones to wear that day.' We used to repair cork-lined derbies, so I'd give him an old one."
Kauffman has a letter from New York's current governor, Hugh Carey, congratulating the store on its 100th birthday and mentioning the fact that the governor's grandfather bought McClellan saddles in the shop. Carey's secretary had misspelled McClellan and the governor, in a handwritten correction, said it was sad no one knew how to spell it anymore.