The Survivors

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Hinsch's holds up against a tide of chains on Fifth Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Hinsch's holds up against a tide of chains on Fifth Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge.

Twenty years ago, Victor Saraniero started working at Your Bakery, an Italian bakery on 86th Street, washing pots and pans. Gradually he worked his way up, learning the trade, until the former owners put the business up for sale and he, his brother and their father bought it.

The world has changed since then, says Victor’s brother and co-owner Angelo Saraniero. The opportunities are fewer, he says, and the costs are higher.

“The amount of money you need, the amount of overhead—it’s a much more difficult environment,” he says. “All the expenses for businesses have gone up. You name it: utilities, taxes, everything … It’s just harder for everybody. We saw [the other businesses] go out one by one. That’s the way it goes. They go out, and they can’t come back.”

As with other stores that have survived the chain invasion on 86th Street, the Saranieros own the spot on which the bakery has stood for 40 years. “Rents would just kill you otherwise,” says Angelo.

Ownership hasn’t isolated the bakery from other changes. “The neighborhood feel seems to be no longer present. It’s a commercial street with changing people all the time,” Angelo says. “It’s not the neighborhood people shopping here so much. It’s people who are commuting here, especially on the weekends.”

As their customer base changed, so did their business. Instead of a family that has known the store for two generations coming in with a large order for cakes and cookies, their typical customer is a shopper who has never been there before coming in for a single pastry.

Yet even—or especially—with a Starbucks two doors down, they try to preserve what they can. “It’s all about personal service,” Saraniero says. “We have regular customers that come in here, and it’s all first-name basis. It’s not just, ‘$3.95—next!’ And that’s being lost by the day.”

Your Bakery has survived largely by not changing, betting that its increasingly rare old-school ways will stand out in a sea of cookie-cutter newness. Unique Goldmine, a family-owned jewelry store, had to evolve. Ironically, it was a national brand that saved it.
Thirty years ago, when Ellen Petropole was raising her three young children, going into business was the last thing on her mind. “I had babies at home,” she explains.

But in 1979, her husband, an insurance broker, had the opportunity to buy a building on 86th Street near Fourth Avenue. It contained a costume jewelry store that Petropole ended up taking over. Meanwhile, Petropole’s childhood friend Roger Sheredos, was looking to expand his fine-jewelry business. A watchmaker by trade, Sheredos had a store in Downtown Brooklyn and was considering opening another in Bay Ridge.

“And I said, ‘Roger, I’m looking for someone to run the store,’ ” she recalls. “I’ve got to have summers off, and I’ve got to be off at 4 o’clock. I said, ‘I don’t care about my salary, but I have to be home with my kids.’ “

Now she’s a grandmother. Roger’s son, Joey, followed his father into the business, becoming a jewelry designer. Unique was so successful, it drew other jewelry stores to the strip—including the national store Zales, across the street. Roger, 70, estimates that 10 jewelers have gone in and out of business since they opened. There are still nine on the strip and the surrounding corners, “but we were the first,” says Petropole “the first and the last.

Behind the counter, Joey Sheredos, now 43, says he literally grew up there. “I started coming here when I was in high school. I used to do my homework upstairs,” he says. Meanwhile, another jeweler who worked there began showing him the trade. “I’d always play with the tools—sort of how my son does now. Did I think this was going to be my career? Fifty-fifty. You go to college to try to figure out what you’re good at. And this is what I’m good at.”

The changing demographics of the neighborhood have not affected them, they say. Perhaps because Sheredos’ family is Lebanese and Petropole’s husband is Greek, she says, people of all nationalities seem to feel comfortable there.

“We’re sensitive to people who are ethnic because we’re ethnic ourselves,” she says. “If they come in here and they have a thick accent, we will take the time to understand them.” They’ve sold engagement rings to couples, gifts to mark the births of their babies, engagement rings and wedding rings to their children.
Sheredos says, “I’m actually seeing the fourth generation come in now.”

But even with their loyal following, business hasn’t always been easy. The spike in gold prices of the 1980s, for example. The current recession—and the accompanying rise in the price of gold—is worse than any they’ve seen. Easing the challenges is the fact that the Petropoles own the building, along with the owners’ willingness—and ability—to wait things out.

“Many years, we didn’t take a dime out of the store … We’re willing to bite the bullet when we have to. We know when to level it off,” Petropole says. “Today with the high rents, the high tuition, young people have it very difficult. We juggled, but we were able to juggle.”

Or as Sheredos puts it: “There were a lot of rice-and-bean dinners.”

A few years back, Petropole read about Pandora, a brand of jewelry that allows people to buy basic pieces and build on them over time. She called the company, but the investment it required was “too much for a small store like ours,” she says. But two years later, Pandora called her back, and “we took a chance,” she says.
“It’s been over the roof,” Petropole says. “It has been a lifesaver for us.”

Now Unique pays to be a licensed dealer of Pandora, and the owners say customers come from as far away as New Jersey to shop for it. Part of the appeal of Pandora is its affordability, Petropole says, and the promise of better days, and jewels, ahead—making it a perfect product for these times. At first they hesitated to sell sterling silver jewelry, since Unique had always been a fine-gold establishment, but now they’re glad they made the decision.

“As long as it keeps you in business, it doesn’t matter. You just have to go with it. You’re just happy to have something somebody wants,” she says. “It’s very frustrating to stand here and no one comes in. Is it the window, is it the lights? You just have to have something people can afford.”

The odds can be stacked against small-business owners. But, many experts say, there are steps that they can take to save themselves. One is to form merchants’ groups and aggressively market their stores and products. Buy-local campaigns cropping up around the country and within the city have proved to be very successful. Such efforts, in which independent businesses pool their resources to market themselves and educate buyers, generally consist of brochures, posters, window decals, banners, coupon books or events. A national survey of 1,800 small businesses after the last holiday season by Mitchell’s Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that those whose cities had an active buy-local campaign saw an increase in holiday sales of 3 percent, compared with 1 percent for stores in cities without such efforts. Nearly 80 percent say they felt public awareness of the importance of choosing local businesses was growing.

“Currently, there is a niche for mom-and-pops. People want to shop local. There is a big movement around it, and people understand it,” says Rosalie Drago, a former member of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce who got a $25,000 grant last year from Small Business Services to perform an economic development survey of Bay Ridge’s Third Avenue, a restaurant row. “But they just have to promote themselves the way a large retailer would.”

Drago says one surprising finding of her survey was that hardly any businesses—successful or not—had formed a business plan, which she describes as an indispensable tool now that customers no longer shop local as a matter of course. She also notes a stark difference among business owners who had seen their customers disappear. Some, she says, were determined to do things the way they always had and were befuddled by the loss of business. But others were ready to change and grow.

“I think the mom-and-pops that get phased out are the ones that either don’t want, or don’t know how, to promote themselves. They’ve become irrelevant, in a way, of their own choosing,” Drago says. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Why do I have to e-mail people now? People always just came to my store. It’s not going to work.’ There were ones that were interested in finding out how it would work, and there were ones who were, you know, ‘It’s not going to change.’ “

“They can absolutely do well in the face of large retail, but they have to act more like large retail. For instance, a bookstore. People say, ‘I’d like a bookstore more like Barnes & Noble.’ That doesn’t mean they want Barnes & Noble on Third Avenue. What they want is a bookstore with a more spacious layout where they can sit and read books. They want readings and classes,” she says.

Small retailers could also be helped by some kind of online platform allowing customers to order from them via the Internet, says Councilman Lander.

“I know a lot of people wind up doing their shopping on the computer, late at night after they put their kids to bed. That’s a lot easier to do with large online merchants rather than small businesses,” Lander says.

Businesses can make changes that not only boost their revenues but also cut their costs. Earlier this year, the Center for an Urban Future studied ways that small businesses could increase their energy efficiency to save money. What they found was that the independents are far less likely to take advantage of energy and cost efficiencies than their large, national neighbors are.

“We think that’s one way small businesses can reduce their costs,” center director Jon Bowles says. “Big chain stores, chances are they have their own consultants making sure they pay as little in energy costs as they can. Small businesses are not set up efficiently, and it just makes it harder and harder to compete.”
That competition is no longer coming just from the chain across the street, experts say. It is on the Internet or overseas. Ultimately, businesses have to adapt. The question is whether government must play a larger role in helping firms find new ways of doing business. “Too often, you don’t see small businesses changing with the times, but I’d love to see small-business assistance geared toward helping small business become more competitive,” says Bowles.

Though it’s not a primary focus for the city, the Department of Small Business Services does offer courses for business owners who might be interested in—and have the time for—learning something new, Walsh says.

“The world around us changes all the time, so what we try to do is provide the tools and knowledge for folks to keep up with that, make the best of it,” says David Margalit, the agency’s deputy commissioner of business development and agency strategy.

In 2000, Brett Cohen, inherited ownership of the Globe Pharmacy on 86th Street from his father, who in turn had bought the business in 1961. Cohen saw early on that if his business was going to survive, it would have to change dramatically.

Cohen, a pharmacist who also has a degree in business administration, says he saw as his father prepared to retire in the late 1990s that business as he knew it was disappearing. Many health insurance companies changed to a mail-order model, in which people had to get their pharmaceuticals via mail from large distributors. That was the worst blow to the drug store, Cohen says, but there were other factors too. A Duane Reade across the street, Rite Aids five or six blocks away in every direction. The loss of the 86th Street Key Food supermarket, he says, meant that locals would no longer drop off their prescriptions on their way to go shopping for food.

“It became a mall street,” says Cohen, who is now 50 and has been working in the store since he was 13. “We had to think out of the box and really do things other people didn’t want to do.”
He talked to the doctors he knew, to find out what services they had trouble finding. He recruited a relative to establish and run Globe Surgical, a supply store next door. And he transformed his business to include chemical compounding—custom-making difficult prescriptions, like those that call for flavoring medications for pets or for children or turning a pill into a suppository. He has a robust online presence and three trucks delivering to all five boroughs.

Now he estimates that 15 to 20 percent of his business comes just from flavoring medicines for pets. For dogs, they make beef- or chicken-based flavors, for a rat, peanut flavor. Birds prefer fruity flavors, he says.

“You’d see people with bite marks and cat scratches all over their arms,” he says. “We put a fish taste on it, and the cat licks it right off.”

The diversification is fulfilling, he says, because they can now help those who can’t find these products elsewhere. It has also shielded him from the recession and from the problems that have plagued other local drugstores.

“If they got rid of mail order, I couldn’t hire enough pharmacists to do the business that would come back,” he says.

The changes that harm some small businesses can create opportunities for others.

Three blocks down from the pharmacy, Bobby DelGaudio was compelled to downsize by changing times, changing neighbors and changing tastes. The hairdresser, who gave his age as 59, worked with the stylist Paul Mitchell in the 1960s and was part of the vanguard of stylists who popularized the unisex salon and the blow dryer. Now he has a small store, Delfina, on 86th Street with six hair stations and eight employees. In 1969 he owned a salon farther up the street that had three floors and more than 70 employees.

“We had four receptionists turning 200 people away every Saturday,” DelGaudio says. “That’s not even exaggerating.”
He estimates his business is down 90 percent from that high point. Part of the issue, as so many business owners say, is the changing neighborhood. Senior women travel in all weather to see the stylist who has tended them for decades, he says, but the new residents just don’t come.

Two years ago, he acknowledged the worsening climate and subleased half his store to Lucky Noor, a beautician who worked at a salon on Third Avenue and was looking to strike out on her own.

Noor, 29, was born in Bangladesh. She came to the U.S. 10 years ago and has lived in Bay Ridge for eight. She says most of her clients are Italian and Greek, but she also sees a steady stream of the neighborhood’s Muslim women, who come to the Lucky Noor Studio because they know there won’t be any men there.

After two years, she says, her business—eyebrow threading, henna tattoos, makeup—is flourishing. She started out with no employees; now she has three. Her loyal customers come from near and far, she says. She has added hair and eyelash extensions to her repertoire and just launched her own all-mineral cosmetics line.

She says she is already starting to outgrow her small space.
“I was doing makeup when I was 10 years old. I used to go to people’s houses and give them full makeup. That’s how I learned,” she says, beaming. “This was my dream all my life, come true.”

New Yorkers might go days without talking to a parent, or weeks without seeing a friend, or years between trips to the childhood block or the foreign homeland. But they probably see the coffee cart man each day. Part of each city life might be spent in school, much of it in work, a little—at the end—in something like leisure, but groceries are a constant in every phase. Some New Yorkers are successes, others less so. Some have doctorates, and others will never speak English. Many are happy. Others have a lifetime of blues. But they all buy stuff—more important, they buy it from other New Yorkers. In the close proximity of commerce and residence that defines urban life, the relationships between people who sell things and people who buy them matter. They help make New York what it is.

On a recent afternoon at Hinsch’s, a moderate crowd of regulars gathered for its diner-style lunch fare. Some sat in small booths alone, ordering the usual. Barbara McKeown, a waitress who has worked at Hinsch’s for almost 43 years, greeted her teenage granddaughter and some friends who’d come for lunch. One of the girls was having a birthday; McKeown gave her a hug.

“I love the people. I just like talking to people. I can talk to anyone, and within a minute I’ll know who you are,” says McKeown, who happened to be sitting in Hinsch’s looking at want ads when she saw an ad for a waitress and applied for the job almost half a century ago. She was 28 then. Now she’s 70, and though she’s cut back to four eight-hour shifts a week, she has no wish to retire.

“We’re the only place really left where people can come in here by themselves and be very comfortable. And God forbid anything happens to them, I have telephone numbers for people to call,” she says. “I have people who are in their 50s—they come in here and say, ‘I remember when I was young, you gave me a lollipop.’ In here, they never walk out unhappy. They always come back, and they always remember.”