NEWARK, NJ — If there’s one skill the family behind Mel Gambert Custom Shirtmakers has become expert at since opening their first shop on Springfield Avenue in 1933, it wouldn’t necessarily be drafting patterns — it’s perseverance.

Joe Gambert, the family patriarch, became Newark’s custom shirt guy during the Great Depression with a $1,000 loan from his mother that he was sworn to pay back. Come WWII, Gambert would make shirts in exchange for rations and share 500-gallon barrels of sugar, flour and milk with the neighborhood. 

The Newark riots were yet another test for the Gambert family and business. And now, so many decades later, Mitch Gambert, who acts as the company's director of business development, is confronted with a global pandemic that forced him to shut the doors of his new factory on Ferry Street. 

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As the state was closing down all nonessential businesses, Gambert and his team were finishing the last of their unpacking from their two-week move from the Ballantine Building. He estimates his losses at around $300,000 so far. 

“On a financial basis, it’s scary. It’s a big investment, and then the loss of revenue, it’s like, what the hell do we do?” he said. “We have about 90 people that work for us, and you worry about them and how this will affect them. Some of them have been with us for 20, 30 years, you know, you come to know them. It’s a shitty feeling, to be perfectly candid.”

If survival is the exception, Gambert is carrying out the family tradition of striving to be exceptional. Soon after the stay-at-home order was signed, he called Newark’s Director of Public Safety Anthony Ambrose with a proposal to temporarily convert his factory into a mask manufacturing site using a pattern one of his business partners, Michael Duru Clothiers, put online. 

With the blessing of Patrick Callahan, acting superintendent of New Jersey State Police, Mitch was approved to operate with 22 employees, half his normal crew. But it was better than nothing. 

“Big picture, it will help what’s going on, but selfishly, it’s a lifeline for our business,” he said. “I’m doing this to keep my business sustained in some capacity.”

So, what’s the plan? How many orders does he have so far?

“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, I really don’t. As of right now, nobody, really,” he said, managing to muster a laugh. Plans evolve day-to-day as he transforms his entire business plan on the fly.

Initially, Mitch planned to make masks for health care workers to wear over their N-95 masks, but hospitals are only purchasing materials from Centers for Disease Control-approved manufacturers. 

He has since readjusted his target demographic to B2B, finding clients in a dry cleaner in Albany who launders gowns for a local hospital, an HVAC company in Birmingham, Alabama, and a car dealership in South Jersey. The Newark Homeless Coalition put in an order for 400.

On the factory floor, the seamstresses sit spaced at least six feet apart, their faces obscured by the very cotton masks they’re making for soon-to-be buyers. One kind of mask is 100% cotton fabric, and another is the same fabric treated with an antibacterial application. 

George Rachev, one of the cutting floor supervisors, measures out a striped pink fabric with an N-95 mask secured tightly over his mouth and nose. 

“It’s a disaster, but we try to do our best. Losing hours, for our community, we do what we can do,” he said. “This at least makes it feel like we’re doing something to help the people outside.”

Many of Gambert's employees wonder amongst themselves if they’re wasting their time, and what the future should hold for the factory and their earnings. Even after the pandemic subsidies and restrictions are lifted, Gambert wonders the same.

“When you’ve been family owned for 87 years, the people who work here have always relied on us for that paycheck,” he said. “We make custom shirts that sell for $200-$500. When this thing is done, and people are back to work, I don’t think shirts are going to be the first thing they’re thinking about.