Saying Goodbye to Mom and Pop

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For years, Virginie-Alvine Perrette hovered intently over her video camera, capturing pieces of New York slipping away. Michael’s Salon, owned and run by Nick DiSisto, for instance, offered Upper East Side children their first haircuts (complete with lollipops) for almost a century. In December 2002, when the charming Italian shop where Perrette herself got her hair cut as a child closed, she was there to film it. According to DiSisto, the landlord wanted to double his $4,770 monthly rent.

Rent hikes, chain stores, and gentrification have put the city’s 185,000 mom-and-pop businesses in danger like never before, says Sung Soo Kim, president of New York’s Small Business Congress, a federation of city trade organizations. Based on commercial evictions and bankruptcies, Kim estimates that the city lost 10,000 small businesses last year alone.

A native of the city, Perrette first noticed the abrupt change in her own neighborhood on the Upper West Side. After returning from college at Stanford and practicing international and environmental law in Latin America, she came home to find that many of the shops she grew up with were gone.

Determined to bring their stories to life, Perrette started taking video production courses at NYU. “Digital video has made documentary filmmaking very accessible,” she says. “I took a few courses, then just jumped in.” Now Perrette spends her days producing, shooting and editing the documentary. She also cofounded a nonprofit, 2 Spot Digital, which creates videos for other community organizations, foundations and schools.

Howard Hassan, owner of a family business that prepared fruit and nut baskets, was one of her subjects. On February 23, 2001, he invited Perrette to film the last day of the Basket Shop his parents opened 62 years ago. A new owner of the Woolworth building wanted to build an entrance into the garage, forcing Hassan to close his doors. “My dreams aren’t that great–I don’t need to be a giant,” says Hassan, who has since opened up a new Basket Shop in Brooklyn’s Borough Park.

In production since 1998, the film will debut next year, its 20-plus hours of film boiled down to 40 minutes. Perrette plans to call it Twilight Becomes Night, inspired by a quote from author John Barth, about how hard it is to pinpoint the exact moment when twilight has become night.

“We will not fully know that all the charm, character, flavor and humanity from small mom-and-pop stores is gone from Manhattan until it is too late,” says Perrette. “At that point, twilight will already have become night.”

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