A good salesman never leaves his post, even when a bitter Monday morning March breeze is blowing down the back of his neck, and even when his shop is just a shopping cart laden with mangoes. For Denis Rogers, standing on the corner of Flatbush and Church, success means location, location, location.
Where the two avenues meet, the B35 bus lumbering toward Brownsville crosses the route of the Flatbush B41, and crowds of commuters pack the sidewalks. It’s a depot for Brooklyn’s tinted-windowed dollar vans and packed livery cars, each going your way. Shoppers walk south on Church to the clothing boutiques and new chains, or head north to buy something at the smaller, locally owned housewares shops and ethnic food stores.
For one dollar, Rogers sells what the customers want: a taste of the past. In this largely Caribbean and African immigrant neighborhood, mangoes are a top seller. “The closest thing to take them back home is the fruit,” he explains. Selling it is the closest thing to home for him too–he emigrated from the West Indian island of St. Lucien in 1969. He knows that he can bolster sales by providing vinegar and salt to complement the mango’s sweet taste, just like back on the islands.
Flatbush street vendors have to master lessons in marketing and real estate if they want to profit off of this fickle avenue, where customers are expert hagglers and the same kind of merchandise–mangoes, handbags, R&B music, silver jewelry–keeps reappearing in front of each seller down the street, as well as in the stores behind them. It should; they all buy it from the same wholesalers in Midtown. This is high-stakes business school, raw and precarious. No loans, no savings and no way to get a legal vending license.
On the avenue, it’s a game of cops and customers: Where the foot traffic is, so is the law. After two years of a sustained police crackdown, vendors face three choices. Stay on the street, well patrolled by customers and police alike. Migrate up the avenue to a poorly trafficked but city-sanctioned flea market. Or abandon Flatbush for other street vendor thoroughfares like the Bronx’s Fordham Road, Queens’s Jamaica Avenue or Brooklyn’s Pitkin Avenue.
Surviving this street Darwinism can mean the beginning of a new career and a legitimate business. After running an underground dollar-van outfit for seven years, Vincent Cummins went legit with Brooklyn Van Lines in 1997. “I’m from Barbados, and being Barbadian I know there’s no way you can operate illegally for too long,” he says. “You test the waters and see if it’s something you want to do. If it is, you should look for a way to be legal.”
For those who have stuck it out on the avenue, Flatbush is a second home. Most of the vendors, overwhelmingly African and Caribbean immigrants themselves, live nearby. Most say they dread going on welfare, and so they depend on the kindness of their families to pay rent, buy merchandise or help them get by, since life as an unlicensed street vendor hasn’t been very profitable lately. They went into the business for reasons as varied as any salesman’s: laid off, entrepreneurial drive, making extra cash, tired of the boss. Whether the peddlers have big plans or are just trying to squeak by, their take-home has dried up, and it’s not all the cops’ fault. Sometimes it’s as simple as supply and demand.
Flatbush in its heyday was a peddler’s paradise. On a good week vendors could make a few hundred dollars, instead of the $10 to $100 they are surviving on now. Getting a choice corner was no easy task. “You had to come early to get a spot. You had to get here 4 or 5 in the morning,” Rogers remembers. “There would be 90 carts of people selling Caribbean stuff, you’d have no problems. There used to be a lot of them. Cops chased them away.”
Back then, though no vendor was immune to the police, there wasn’t any comprehensive enforcement. “There were hundreds of [vendors],” explains Terry Rodie, district manager for Community Board 14. “The community was upset and angry. You couldn’t walk a baby in a carriage down the street. Then merchants started putting their stuff out.”
Two years ago, the Community Board struck a deal: They would allow vendors to set up shop in a municipal lot on Caton Avenue and ask the police to squeeze street vending off of Flatbush. From the police’s end, it was a simple request. The mayor and former police chief William Bratton had placed street vending on their hit list of quality-of-life offenses in 1994, setting a precedent that fall with a crackdown on 125th Street in Harlem. They cleared out hundreds of street vendors and confiscated their goods, later cordoning them off in a city-owned lot on 116th Street.
But to make any real money at all, vendors have to be where the customers are, and that means on the avenue. Flatbush peddlers learn to incorporate police harassment–or “rassling,” as Rogers calls it–into their business plans. Many have found a way to skate around the law and the crackdown by laying low and faking legitimacy.
Barry, a recent immigrant from Guinea, opened his sidewalk shop of hats, barrettes and bags in February with $300 borrowed from a friend to buy the merchandise. To keep the investment from ending up confiscated in the back of a police van, he illegally rents the outside vestibule of a nail and hair salon. He’s careful to keep the stuff inside the boundaries of the table-sized space, hoping his transgression will fade into the background of a busy commercial strip. So far, the strategy’s worked.
Rogers sticks it out on the open corner. Selling his Caribbean fruits is making him some money, but he admits he had earned more as a driver for Brooklyn Van Lines during its underground years. Now legal, its bright green and white vehicles stand out in a ragtag river of dark vans. Rogers says the cops harass drivers more aggressively than vendors, and he suspects even legitimate vans aren’t immune. “That money there is better, but more rassling too,” he says. “I’d rather take it easy than make that money. That was rassling with the police. They would rassle you for nothing at all.”
Going legit isn’t easy–it takes licensed drivers, attorney’s fees and enough money to cover the taxes. Instead, most van lines simply deal with the rassling, factoring it in as a cost of business. But increasingly, drivers have switched to minivans with livery license plates, bending the law without inviting a crackdown. “It’s a way of getting around the system,” Cummins says. “It will continue until the city says enough is enough and deals with it.”
Rogers is more concerned about a NYPD blue-and-white van crawling by. He becomes uneasy and quiet as the van rolls along, only relaxing when it’s out of sight. “Driving around looking,” he says. “It’s all they do, all day long.”
There’s another option for vendors who don’t want the hassle. Corralled behind a green wire fence, the vendors who sell in the Caton Avenue municipal lot spend a lot of their time watching potential customers pass them by.
The lot was designed to be the perfect home for these entry-level entrepreneurs. Vendors take a 12-week business course from the city. No one selling here pays licensing fees, and taxes are a personal matter; instead, they hand over $35 a week as rent. Some buy a tent for $150.
But many peddlers here wonder if they have just traded one trouble for the other: the police for bad business. This morning, Al Green croons through the stereo that Selwyn uses to attract customers to his gospel, reggae and oldies collection. Vending has become a career for him ever since he was fired as a store manager (he says he was a fall guy). He’s hoping his street vending days are a stepping stone to opening a store of his own. But he’s got credit card bills to pay, and no steady stream of customers to help him do it. The few sales he makes today have him handing merchandise over the fence to passersby who don’t feel like walking in. “You always make more money on the street; you’re mingling with the people,” he says ruefully.
He thinks he’d do better if he diversified. Selwyn’s been eyeing the sterling silver jewelry that Baousmane sells across the lot to complement his selection of R&B CDs, sure that’s where the big money is. But to hear Baousmane, a West African immigrant, tell it, he hasn’t made good cash since he moved into this lot from the street a year ago. Sometimes it takes him three or four weeks to earn $20. He has to depend on his family to see him through these lean times. “No good business, nobody comes,” he says.
Business is bad, interrupts toy car dealer Franz Moise, pointing to now-empty spaces where people used to sell regularly. Bad merchandising decisions, he says, can be deadly. Flanking Baousmane’s table are two others with the same combo of jewelry and CDs. It cuts into Baousmane’s profits, says Moise. And if Selwyn got into the act, it could be professional suicide.
For Moise these discussions of supply and demand are somewhat academic. His wife makes $100 a day selling baby and bridal shower knickknacks full time from a licensed cart in Penn Station. Moise is a weekend vendor, raising extra cash to supplement his day job at a fur and leather store.
But, says Moise, the day he feels confident that he can make a living in this lot is the day he’ll quit his job and sell full time. He just has to watch out for product parasites. “If I’m making money on something they turn around and have the same stuff,” says Moise, who had to quit selling T-shirts when his neighboring vendor followed suit. “You try and tell them, but sometimes they don’t listen.”
Among street vendors, the biggest dream is going legit, opening a store and finally escaping the grip of the cops. After four years of street peddling, Man Yacouza did it two years ago, opening Jamerifican on Flatbush and Albemarle. But this one person-wide boutique of videos, music, hats and purses has yet to bring him prosperity.
Sunday is the one lazy day on Flatbush. A few early-bird shops open around 11 a.m., the rest around noon. This morning, Yacouza is explaining the stresses of small business ownership while he chooses his best bags for outside display. When he decided to open a place, a friend found him someone to ease the complex process. For $500 a year, this guy fills out business license forms, pays his $800-a-year taxes in quarterly increments and even found Yacouza this store.
Yacouza first became a street vendor because he was only earning $170 a week at a car wash. These days he doesn’t do much better, making between $150 and $200 a week. In the first five to six months after opening Jamerifican he saved no money–it all went back into merchandise. He says he still depends on friends, family and meager savings to pay the $1,000 a month rent on the place.
He, like the vendors in the Caton lot, says business is bad–and he has no fences to block him from customers. People look, and nobody buys. “In 1993, a nice time was that time, a really, really nice time,” he recalls, hanging hats on a display over his doorway. “Every year the money will go down, not only one place but everywhere.”
If he wants to make any decent money, he knows he’ll have to leave Flatbush. But finding an opening on a prime thoroughfare is as frustrating as locating an affordable apartment these days. “I tried, but there’s no place. One guy moves and he tells his friends,” he says. “I like Brooklyn, [but] it’s more trouble.”