These businesses lasted decades; the virus closed them for good

Troy Closson, The New York Times

Posted at Jul 28 2020 07:43 AM

Ernest and Margaret Rossi outside their 100-year-old gift shop in the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan on July 16, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has forced many small businesses that withstood recessions, world wars and natural disasters to close, and the Rossis fear their shop will be next. Chang W. Lee, The New York Times

NEW YORK — A gun store that opened in 1911. An Irish pub that had drawn crowds since the Reagan administration. A coffee shop that sheltered frightened Brooklyn residents during the 2001 terrorist attacks.

These small businesses — John Jovino Gun Shop in Little Italy, Coogan’s in Washington Heights and Cranberry’s in Brooklyn Heights — are among the mom and pop shops and restaurants in New York that have withstood decades of economic downturns, wars and natural disasters, helping to anchor their neighborhoods and define the city.

But they could not survive the coronavirus pandemic, which has ravaged not just fragile small businesses but stalwarts that had lasted for generations. Many were especially reliant on repeat customers and foot traffic, and their income dried up almost overnight when the state shut down to stop the spread of the virus.

Their losses have not only left troubling holes in their neighborhoods but could signal even deeper trouble for other small ventures.

“If one of these iconic places can’t survive, you’ve got to wonder how a lot of the newer small businesses are going to get through this,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future.

Nearly 3,000 small businesses in New York City have closed for good in the past four months, blaming falling revenue, vanished tourism and ballooning debt, especially for overdue rent. Some older businesses pointed to their failure to develop robust online commerce that might have carried them through the tough times.

Before the pandemic, Record Mart was a fixture of the Times Square subway station for more than 60 years, known for carrying vinyl recordings of Latin and jazz music.

Lou Moskowitz left his job in real estate in 2006 to work full time at the shop, which was owned by his father. Sales at independent record stores were on the decline nationwide, and many were shutting down throughout New York. Moskowitz’s friends had questioned why he had chosen to move into the industry.

“I know it doesn’t make any sense,” Moskowitz said, “but I did it anyway because I wanted to work with my dad.”

After his father died in 2012, Moskowitz took over the business. For years, Record Mart survived by selling electronics and headphones and drawing in passersby to explore its extensive vinyl collection. The shop was not thriving, but revenue trickled in.

Then coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rose in New York, and more than 90 percent of the city’s subway ridership disappeared. That was “the final nail in the coffin,” Moskowitz said. He weighed the shop’s future for two months before closing it permanently in June.

Restaurants, barbershops and small shops have closed across the city because of the pandemic. But for some residents, the near-weekly closures of deep-rooted neighborhood mainstays have ushered in a different type of mourning.

“It’s been this long, drawn-out loss, and it’s a lot to take in emotionally,” said Jeremiah Moss, author of “Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul,” a book about gentrification. Moss said he recently rode by a Manhattan theater and suddenly began wondering if it, too, would disappear soon. “And then I pushed it aside, because it’s just too much right now. It’s overwhelming.”

As independent stores struggle, both city and federal officials have offered some financial support. More than 275,000 small businesses across the state received aid through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which started in April.

But some owners have said the loans did not go far enough. And roughly half of the city’s small businesses were left out of the program, according to a report from Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller.

Gem Spa, a narrow shop in the East Village known for its egg creams and ties to the music scene of the ’60s and ’70s, planned to apply for the first round of PPP support, the store’s owner Parul Patel said, but did not before funding was gone. The corner store, nearly a century old, already had been in financial trouble after losing its license to sell tobacco, a large source of revenue.

Patel had taken over the shop two years ago from her father. She quickly stocked shelves with electronic cigarettes, healthy snacks and clothing and household items branded with the store’s logo. For the first time, social media accounts were created for the shop, and sales soon rose. But her efforts to modernize could not overcome the pandemic.

“We were on the verge of reaching huge growth in a few months,” Patel said. “But when this started happening, that fell apart, and my mother said, ‘It’s enough. Just close the store.’ ”

She did so in May, although an online store still exists.

Even some long-standing shops that have survived are suffering blows. The family-owned Strand Book Store in Manhattan laid off more than 85 percent of its staff in late March. Nancy Bass Wyden, the store’s owner, said it was the first time employees were laid off in the store’s 93 years.

Storefront vacancies had already become increasingly common in New York over the past decade, and the pandemic has only brought more “for rent” signs to city sidewalks. Robert Walsh, a former commissioner of the city’s Small Business Services agency, said some entrepreneurs were already dissuaded by the city’s high retail rents.

“When you start thinking about these places going down that have been there for years, it’s tough on the confidence of those who want to put a stake in the ground,” Walsh said.

In Hell’s Kitchen, Empire Coffee & Tea first started selling coffee bags and cold drinks when Theodore Roosevelt was president. Paul Shaytin, who co-owns the business, purchased a space in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he opened a second shop.

In New Jersey, his electric bill and insurance expenses added up to about $3,000 per month, about $9,000 less than what the same services were costing him in Manhattan. Those costs, when combined with the pandemic, led him to close the New York store in April.

Owners facing the prospect of losing stores that have been their family legacy are dealing not just with financial burdens but also emotional ones.

Lifelong customers have come to Ernest Rossi’s gift shop in Little Italy to purchase souvenirs, religious items and kitchen supplies. His grandfather opened E. Rossi & Co. 100 years ago, and Rossi, who has worked there since he was a child, had promised he would try to keep it alive.

Rossi, who is 70 and does not have any children, said he has tapped into savings and burned through retirement accounts to hold on to the store. He saw in-person business begin to decline in early March, and even large discounts could not lure customers back. He owes months of back rent and says he is worried it is only a matter of time before he has to close the shop.

“I feel so sorry for my husband,” said Margaret Rossi, Rossi’s wife of almost 50 years. “Every time he thinks of the store closing, tears come down his eyes.”

Many shop owners said that landlords from whom they had rented for years were often unable or unwilling to modify lease terms or make concessions on rent because of their own financial challenges.

To help both groups and save some of the city’s long-standing institutions, organizations including the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce are pushing the city to lower property tax bills for landlords and trying to come up with a plan for some state relief. They are also hoping to persuade lenders to modify mortgage terms.

Still, as owners wait, the closings continue.

The Paris Cafe, a 147-year-old bar and restaurant in South Street Seaport, had weathered its fair share of setbacks before the pandemic. Eight years ago, Hurricane Sandy flooded the cafe, ruining the electrical system and leaving bar stools coated with mold. But it returned, along with menus that had long been inscribed with the optimistic slogan, “The Paris Cafe 1873 — Forever.”

Pete O’Connell, the owner, acknowledged that ambition might be permanently dashed after he ended the bar’s lease months ago because of the pandemic. He is still hopeful, however.

“I still have faith in Manhattan and New York City,” O’Connell said. “I still have faith that they can reinvent themselves — and that hopefully the cafe can reinvent itself eventually. But only time will tell.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company