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New York’s Last Umbrella Guy Faces a Storm of Crappy Umbrellas

As temperatures rise, umbrella shops are going extinct—and fixing your busted umbrella becomes near-impossible.

Steve Asman tests one of his GustBusters in his Long Island factory. (Scott Heins/Hell Gate)

Whether you desperately purchased one from a subway vendor hawking cheap merchandise as ominous gray clouds rolled in, or spent a few bucks on something sturdier at a Duane Reade, New Yorkers know that their umbrellas are soon destined for the trash.

Even if you shelled out actual money for a fancy department store umbrella, its days are numbered, because it's nearly impossible to get it fixed after it inevitably breaks. New York City's last umbrella repairman, Gilbert Center, whose family once owned an umbrella manufacturing shop in the Lower East Side and who continued fixing umbrellas from the basement workshop of his Kensington home, died a few years ago. The city's last specialty umbrella shop, Rain or Shine, closed in December. (The store's former owner could not be reached for comment.) 

New Yorkers looking for a true umbrella specialist have one last resort in Holbrook, Long Island. In a one-story warehouse at the end of a leafy street located off the ironically named Sunrise Highway, Steve Asman and a handful of workers assemble and then custom print logos on umbrellas. 

Asman's GustBuster umbrellas come with a patented design, a lifetime guarantee, and a $50 to $80 price tag.

"Why buy a cheap umbrella that will break in a 10 mile per hour wind for $10 to $25," Asman told Hell Gate, in full sales pitch mode, "when you can buy a GustBuster that comes with a lifetime warranty so you don't get your $50 blowout ruined and you look like a raccoon?"

Umbrellas meeting their fate during a downpour in Columbus Circle (Benjamin Kanter / Mayoral Photo Office)

Of the 400,000 umbrellas Asman sells globally each year, he says he makes about 200 repairs. He will reluctantly fix other umbrellas too, even though he admits it's a lot of trouble. 

"Repairs are a lost business. My guys can do it, but it gets too costly," Asman said. "My guys do warehousing, silk screening, and change handles out, but when you get into repair, the problem is all the little parts, and every frame is different. It's a disposable industry now."

With little to no standardization in the umbrella industry, repair shops would need hundreds of parts from the different countries that manufacture them, and multiple types of handles and enough nylon fabric in a rainbow of colors for the canopies. Not to mention the actual skills to repair them, which have all but vanished.

Asman bought out Center's umbrella stock when his company folded, but Center kept coming to Asman's factory well into his nineties, to both repair older models and make new ones. One of Center's last projects was to fabricate 50 plastic umbrellas for the Rockettes.

An umbrella getting assembled. (Scott Heins / Hell Gate)

"I remember him cutting the nylon with a cutting board with wooden die cuts," Asman said, describing an antiquated method of manufacturing that is no longer used. "He laid the fabric out and sliced them to the panel size and sewed them together. They took forever. They were custom umbrellas. They were not cheap."

Asman, a lifelong Long Islander, has been manufacturing umbrellas since 1995. It wasn't his first line of work. He initially went into his family business building single-family homes and managing properties in Brookhaven, but a recession in the early 1990s prompted Asman and his father to explore alternatives. One day, a man who designed umbrellas reached out to Asman's father because he needed accounting help after winning $50,000 on a slot machine in Atlantic City. He took a liking to them and soon invited the Asmans to join his fledgling umbrella business. Asman brought in a chemical and mechanical engineer to redesign the frame to make it withstand gustier winds. 

Asman with his screen-printing machine. (Scott Heins / Hell Gate)

With no advertising budget, the duo hit upon a novel tactic: Asman would scour local TV news segments to note when and where reporters set up their live shots during bad weather. Sometimes, he would drive to the location of the live shot the same night he saw them on the news, and hand out his umbrellas to reporters and producers, many of whom then used them in future broadcasts. 

That salesmanship extended to celebrities in the news, too. When Asman saw Donald Trump photographed holding a broken umbrella in the New York Daily News in a story about his marital troubles with Marla Maples, he shipped a GustBuster to Trump with a note, "Our umbrellas don't do this." The Trump Organization has been buying umbrellas from Asman ever since. (The umbrella that President Trump couldn't figure out how to close before getting onto Air Force One four years ago is not one of Asman's, he said.)

(Scott Heins / Hell Gate)

But his most dependable clients come from the professional golf world. Asman proffered early samples to the golfers Bruce Crampton, Raymond Floyd, and Arnold Palmer at golf tournaments in Long Island. By 1996, they had sold $800,000 worth of merchandise, and the following year, they netted $2 million, while becoming the official umbrella of the country's three major professional golf tours. 

This industry is a volatile one—and depends on the whims of a changing climate. Three times a week, Asman scans National Weather Service maps, the Weather Channel app, and Google alerts for forecasts for different regions. He usually starts monitoring California, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean to see where the airflow is moving. When a storm system appears to coalesce, Asman sends out an email blast to customers or sets up an ad on social media sites, with an ominous but helpful warning: "Rain is coming. Be prepared." One such solicitation in late October yielded a couple thousand dollars in orders. 

(Scott Heins / Hell Gate)

Sales have slowed this year. Asman stocks MetroNorth train stations with umbrellas and has tracked the dip in weekday commuting trips, which he attributes to hybrid work schedules. Then there's the historic "megadrought" out west that has shrunk water levels in the region's lakes and rivers, while creating abnormally dry conditions in the northeast. While the drought has made rain less frequent, storms that do drench the city have become more intense. ("A higher temperature causes more moisture to be pulled out of the ground, which results in a longer period of drought. And because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water, when atmospheric conditions call for it, rainfall is much heavier," explained Mona Hemmati, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University.)

Naturally, Asman is happier when it rains.

"You know the song from KC and the Sunshine Band, 'Do a Little Dance?'" he said. "That's what it makes me feel." 

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