Originally published in The New York Times, March 19, 2006.
Poetry in Felt and Slate
Eighty-three years and three generations make Blatt a New York institution. Sam Blatt immigrated from Russia in 1913, and though a cabinet maker by trade, he knew an opportunity when he saw one.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pool table is ornately carved, with wooden fruit dripping from its corners. Howard Stern’s has a black veneer and chrome detailing — sleek and modern. Sting’s is ornamented with soft mosaics, like a stained glass window in a country cabin. Each was hand-built at Blatt Billiards on Broadway near East 11th Street.
Blatt’s 130-year-old, six-story building is inhabited by leather workers, master carvers, marqueteers, ebonists and cabinet makers — craftsmen of the highest order. Many have worked there for decades, breathing the sweet-smelling wood dust amid the sounds of saws, drills and sanders. Lifelong New Yorkers work alongside men from Colombia, Guatemala and Congo, sanding and chiseling, sawing and varnishing. Their creations are tables so beautiful, they seem more like museum pieces than game sets.
One of them will grace the Milton Berle Room at the New York Friars Club tomorrow when Mike Massey, world champion trick-shot artist, performs at a fund-raiser for the Jerry Orbach Fund for Prostate Cancer Research.
Though these tables are clearly not meant for everyone, they have a following among those with sufficient space and disposable income. (The least expensive tables run about $15,000; many cost several times that.) “They come down from Wall Street with their bonus checks,” said Barry Dubow, Blatt’s fast-talking marketing man, explaining who his buyers were. “They can’t wait.”
According to Victor Stein, the company’s resident billiards historian and antique table and cue stick buyer, Blatt buyers include 50 Cent, the rapper, who has a custom table complete with inlaid 50-cent symbols. “We sell to doctors, lawyers, drug dealers,” Mr. Stein said. “Anyone with a lot of money.”
Eighty-three years and three generations make Blatt a New York institution. Sam Blatt immigrated from Russia in 1913 and started his company 10 years later. Though a cabinet maker by trade, he knew an opportunity when he saw one. With more than 4,000 pool halls in New York in those days, he traveled from pool hall to pool hall, repairing pockets and replacing fabric.
During World War II, with young men off fighting instead of at home shooting pool, many halls faltered. In the 1940’s, as the city’s pool halls closed their doors one by one, Blatt opened the factory on Broadway, bought tables from bankrupt halls, and restored and resold them.
The Blatt store, on the factory’s ground floor, is a serious place. Though its large, dark interior is full of games, the staff embraces the gruff reserve of battlefield surgeons. An intimating group of older men, they loom behind the long glass display counter, seemingly indifferent to the comings and goings of customers and openly irritated by the ignorance of some.
On the second floor, through an unmarked door and up a series of impossibly rickety stairs — some angled like ski slopes — one finds the real treasures, the antique pool tables, stacked three high, in various stages of repair. Pedro Baracaldo, Blatt’s expert wood carver, stood at his work station, a clutter of bladed instruments before him.
Mr. Baracaldo, a grandfatherly-looking man with wispy gray hair and glasses that rest low on his nose, pivoted from side to side, searching for the best angle to sand deep grooves into a foot-long wooden panel that would eventually decorate the head of a table. Then, using a scoop-shaped chisel, he pried small chunks of wood from the grooves, deepening their leaflike lines.
Mr. Baracaldo, 59, comes from a family of Colombian furniture makers. Before immigrating to the United States in 1980, he spent four years studying at Bellas Artes, a prestigious Bogotá arts school. He has been at Blatt for 25 years, but though he plays pool, the table in his home is what he describes as a cheap production-line model. He can’t afford the tables he builds.
For pool enthusiasts, a good billiards table is crucial. “Byrne’s New Standard Book of Pool and Billiards,” the bible of the game, dictates: “The table has to be at least seven feet long (pros insist on nine); otherwise the game becomes trivial, like marbles. It has to be solid enough so that if somebody bumps it, the balls won’t rearrange themselves. It has to have a slate bed because slate doesn’t warp, lasts forever, and is rigid enough to resist acting as a trampoline. Slate can take the punishment that children and drunks dish out.”
At Blatt, most of the heavy work of table making is done on the third floor. On a recent afternoon, Fred Cohen, 45, secured three panels of Italian slate, each weighing 300 pounds, to the top of a table. As the bouncy 1970’s song “Low Rider” bubbled from a boom box, he explained that the seams between the panels would soon be filled with beeswax and polished, creating a perfect smoothness. Fabric — often referred to as felt, though it is actually worsted wool — will be stretched over the slate, creating the playing surface.
Most of the company’s 50 or so factory employees, all men, share this noisy, fluorescent-lit space. The shelves, counters and floor are filled with an organized chaos of wood planks, band saws, metal vises, red and yellow Bustelo coffee tins (for storage), long strips of Styrofoam (for shipping), vacuums, ketchup containers filled with glue, air hoses (for managing sawdust) and woodworking tools.
According to at least one of his co-workers, Mwamba Babrao Kakudji, 54, is the best cabinet maker at Blatt. Like most of the men on this floor, Mr. Kakudji is a skilled “generalist”; in other words, he can nearly build an entire table from scratch.
He came to New York in 1984 as a political refugee from Congo, where he had received five years of carpentry training from Belgians. Through a bushy beard, he speaks with a faint accent about everything from politics (he opposes the war in Iraq) and the news media (he refers to his hero, Amy Goodman, of the Internet radio program “Democracy Now,” as “that lady with the big mouth”), to his six children and their aspirations. None want to follow in his footsteps. “It’s too dirty,” Mr. Kakudji said.
Up two more flights of stairs is the fifth-floor finishing department, where worsted wool is stretched, leather pockets are cut and shaped, and table legs are carved. Because the Blatt workday starts at 6 a.m., by 10 a.m. on a recent Wednesday it was lunchtime. A group of young men sat on overturned buckets, eating crackers and cheese, drinking coffee and chatting in Spanish.
For the moment, the sounds of whirring and grinding were replaced with conversation. But even in the factory’s slowest moments, Blatt employees seem to possess the sense of purpose that comes with being among the last to practice a noble tradition.
Once, according to Mr. Stein, 100 table factories and pool supply companies were located south of Union Square on Broadway and along the Bowery, and at the turn of the century, New York was the hub of the booming American billiards industry.
In Blatt’s fourth-floor showroom, fabric samples and table designs are laid out on pool table tops, awaiting an interior designer’s keen eye. There, where the tables of the rich and famous repose among hand-carved players’ chairs and custom cue holders, it is hard to imagine that tables more beautiful are being made anywhere else.