Miller's, an egalitarian New York equestrian establishment that makes no distinction between man and beast, claims that it carries 1) everything for the horseman and 2) everything for the horse. This assertion is perfectly true (Miller's catalog lists everything from jodhpurs to jowl hoods), and the store is entitled to do a bit of boasting about it. Nonetheless, there is one item of merchandise that Miller's does not carry and that is the horse itself.
Joe Miller, the store's president, recalls the day he made this decision. "It was in the mid-1940s," he says, peering owlishly over his horn-rim glasses. "Carriages were selling very well—gasoline was rationed—and we were also selling the horses to pull them." A dealer called Miller up and said, "Joe, I've got a horse your customers will love, a horse a little girl can drive." Miller went to the man's stable, took one look at the animal and felt like going home. "His eyes were rolling in two different directions. He nearly kicked two grooms to death while they were hitching him up." Miller and the dealer had barely gotten into the carriage when the horse bolted, galloping right into Central Park. "He's a little high-spirited," the dealer yelled.
It was a holiday weekend, and the park was thronged with people. "The horse scattered them in all directions," says Miller. "Cops blew their whistles and kids ran after us yelling 'Hi yo, Silver!' " The horse circled the park, galloped back to the stable and Miller stepped down shakily. "Joe," the dealer told him, "you don't want this animal." "Where'd you get that idea?" Miller replied, wiping his brow. "Joe," the dealer said, "the horse is a sweetheart, but the two of you just don't hit it off."
Then and there Miller decided to concentrate on saddlery, tack and apparel, and let the store's customers get their own horses. Today, as a result, he presides over a merchandising operation on Manhattan's East 24th Street that does a $2 million annual business. "And you know something?" he says happily. "Carriages still sell. One fellow once bought 14, including a four-horse brougham." The customer, Miller adds, was "the Vice King of Phenix City, Ala., and proud of it." Every Sunday morning, weather permitting, he'd load his girls into the carriages and parade them around town. "The fresh air," says Miller, "did wonders for their complexions."
Be this as it may, the bulk of Miller's trade is more traditional. Polo mallets are shipped to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; electric horse clippers to Holliston, Mass.; super never-rust racking bits to San Antonio. "What's more," Miller points out, "we're continually improving equipment. We've just developed a new sulky wheel that, over the next decade, may bring us a million dollars in orders." Present sulky wheels, he explains, are like bike wheels; they have a dozen or more parts, and every few weeks they must be laboriously taken apart and cleaned. The new wheel has a one-piece hub with a sealed bearing; no involved cleaning is necessary.
"With it all," says Miller, "we're a personal store. Little girls write us chatty letters. 'Dear Mr. Miller,' they'll say, 'Annie—that's my horse—has a bad cold. Mother thinks she's sweating too much under your 375 Stable Blanket. What do you think?' Or sometimes they'll write, 'Dear Mr. Miller: My horse coughs all the time. Mr. John, the groom, says to give him cod-liver oil. I don't like cod-liver oil myself, and maybe my horse won't. What should I do?' "
A typewritten manuscript was lying on Miller's desk, and he picked it up. "We're even in the literary business," he said. "No publisher would touch a horse book without consulting us first." He flipped through the pages. "Here's the outline of a manual called Horse Owners' Hoof Care. It explains how to shoe. Do-it-yourself is getting more and more popular." Finally, Miller paused for breath. "There's nothing the horseman needs," he said flatly, "that we don't have. Go ahead, take a look around."
On Miller's first floor, in the apparel department, signs announced a clearance sale on ladies' felt riding hats (in assorted colors, $2.50) and a special on Helanca stretch-cloth breeches ($50). A spare, spry man in his 50s clambered astride a saddle atop a chest, where he was fitted for a pair of jodhpurs. Waiting to follow him were four young ladies, in graduated sizes, whose mother complained they were all growing out of their jodhpurs together. A crayoned placard on the wall, obviously drawn by an adolescent, reassured her. "Twas the day 'ere the show," it declaimed, "and we were in a tizzy. But Miller's products made us all much less busy."
A Miller's representative named Marc Elfant proceeded to display the five-story building's wares. An Argentinian by birth, Elfant is a trim, ebullient man. "We have saddles from England, from Germany, from France," he said. "An expert can tell where a saddle comes from just by glancing at it." He hefted an incredibly light racing saddle. "It only weighs one pound." A small machine with a vacuum-cleaner-type attachment drew his attention. "This is an Electro-Groom. It's excellent for people who have small stables." There were veterinary preparations as well. Miller's Skin Conditioner was the exact color of good bourbon; Chevinal, a vitamin-mineral supplement, contained brewer's yeast, wheat germ and skim milk.
"The bulk of our business," said Elfant, "is in English apparel and saddlery. But western accounts for 15%." He pointed toward the racks of western clothing. "Frontier pants, Levis, fringed jackets." An ornamental saddle was selling for $650. "We've sold silver saddles for $10,000. Good silversmiths are hard to find; the saddles are an investment."