Natan Wekselbaum, Cuban-born founder of Gracious Home, Dies at 83

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An obituary by Sam Roberts for the New York Times.

Natan Wekselbaum, who, after being slighted as a struggling English speaker by two Manhattan retailers, opened his own tiny hardware store and transformed it into an Upper East Side household goods emporium congruously named Gracious Home, died on Oct. 3 at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.

 

The cause was kidney failure, his wife, Nancy Wekselbaum, said.

Mr. Wekselbaum and his brother, David Weck, who had both recently immigrated from Cuba, were the only employees of the store when it opened in 1963 in a cramped 2,000-square-foot space.

They began with a dual mission. They would offer every sort of whatchamacallit in the categories of housewares, plumbing and electrical supplies, and appliances and utensils — from aerators to window zippers. (And if it wasn’t stocked, it was ordered.) And, they vowed, they would treat customers — be they housekeepers, ladies who lunch, college professors or custodians — with the same, well, graciousness.

“One thing he told me on various occasions was that throughout his life he often felt like something of an outsider,” Mr. Wekselbaum’s son Charles said in his eulogy.

 

“In Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, he was called a Jewish person; in Havana, a campesino; and in New York, a Puerto Rican,” he said. “I like to think that the lesson that he took away from this feeling, and carried with him, was that the most important thing is to be yourself, to embrace the uniqueness of character of one’s self and of those around you, and to treat everybody well and with respect no matter where they come from.”

The store eventually spread to both sides of Third Avenue, between 70th and 71st Streets, as it gobbled up 40,000 square feet from one adjacent storefront after another. It opened several other Manhattan locations as well and came to stock some 175,000 items — increasingly of luxury caliber — and add as many as 500 employees.

Though never known as a haven for bargains, the store became a magnet for shoppers searching for — and willing to pay top dollar for — elusive vacuum cleaner bags, replacement glass coffee decanters, light-switch plates in scores of colors, specialty stain removers, hard-to-find bulbs, decorative lighting fixtures and pictures frames, designer dinnerware and bedding, and a cornucopia of other items.

Mr. Weck moved to Florida and sold his interest to his brother in 1984.

After finding itself in financial straits because of overexpansion, the family lost control of the business in 2010, and Mr. Wekselbaum and his wife, who ran the bedding, bath and linen shop, retired to Connecticut. Gracious Home is still operating under new ownership.

Mr. Wekselbaum at his Upper East Side store in about 2008. It had spread to both sides of Third Avenue, between 70th and 71st Streets, as it gobbled up 40,000 square feet from one adjacent storefront after another.

Natan Wekselbaum was born in Sancti Spiritus, a 16th-century city in central Cuba, on Oct. 21, 1934, to Samuel and Sarah (Chysyk) Wekselbaum.

 

His father had left Soviet Russia around 1920 because of anti-Semitism and planned to settle in the United States. But, apparently told that the American government was wary of Communist infiltration and that he would have to go to a nearby country first, he landed in Cuba, liked it, began working as a peddler there and remained.

Natan Wekselbaum graduated from the University of Havana, where he majored in business and accounting and joined the family business importing and distributing cosmetics, health and beauty supplies, stationery and hardware.

When Fidel Castro seized power, the family business faltered, and Mr. Wekselbaum, at 27, left for the United States in 1961 with his wife and infant son. He was the last of his siblings to leave. His parents followed several years later.

Mr. Wekselbaum had planned to pursue a career as an accountant in New York. But he changed his mind after sales clerks in a discount department store and a small hardware retailer rebuffed him — because, he believed, he was a foreigner with a Spanish accent.

“They treated me terribly,” he told The New York Times in 1993. “That was what gave me the idea to open a shop where we would be nice to people, even if they didn’t speak English.”

His first marriage, to Aida Berger, ended in divorce. He married Nancy Cohen, a financial analyst who had grown up in a retailing family in upstate New York, in 1982. They had met in the elevator of the building where they both lived.

At Gracious Home, Mr. Wekselbaum had a reputation for being hands-on, working from a tiny office, answering the telephone himself and attentively touring the store each morning.

In 2003, when he needed a kidney transplant, doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital were stunned when 18 potential donors volunteered. His replacement organ came from a salesman in the hardware department at Gracious Home.

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