Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Support Your Local Small Business

Whenever the Republicans argue for tax cuts for their rich friends they make the claim that lower taxes are a stimulus for small businesses. Their claims in this area are clearly exaggerated, and if they really wanted to help small businesses rather than their rich cronies and contributors they wouldn't simultaneously be so gung-ho to support policies that give away the store to big business while making it that much harder for small businesses to compete with Wal-Mart, etc. But I'm not here to argue politics or policy. This is a feelgood piece.

One of the things I love about being a long-time resident of Park Slope is the relationships I've established with some great local businesses. Shopping with these proprietors is much more than a sterile business transaction, it's a chance for social interaction. It's also an opportunity to deal directly with the people who run the businesses rather than minimum-wage employees of a large chain who couldn't give a shit. A long-term relationship with a business means a shared history. They know your preferences and past problems and you have become confident in their expertise. Even if you pay a little more for the products and services, you can't put a price on the value of the trust relationship.

I was inspired to write this when I recently ordered a pair of reading glasses, my first, from Visions, the eyeglass shop I've been dealing with for years. I went in one afternoon and tried on several frames, and was torn between two. Robert, one of the two brothers who run the shop, suggested I take both pairs of frames home and test drive them for a day. Would Pearle, LensCrafters or Cohen's do the same, and without asking for a deposit, no less? It turned out I went with the pair I was originally less inclined toward, because I was able to become familiar with both at my leisure. I've been dealing with Robert and Stewart for at least fifteen years. Even though I don't buy glasses that often, I get to see them every once in a while for adjustments, loose screws, etc., and they never consider these free maintenance services a burden, but rather treat me just as if I were buying another $500 pair of glasses.

I joke that I know I've reached a certain age because the drug store is a place where everyone knows my name. Palma Chemist is my local pharmacy, and I see the guys who work the front, Frank & Peter, at least a couple of times a month. I recently discovered that one of my brand-name prescriptions would be considerably cheaper if I ordered a 3-month supply by mail from Express Scripts, one of those big prescription benefits management companies that are threatening the survival of local pharmacies. In this case I couldn't take the high road because a one-month supply at Palma had cost me $45 and a 3-month supply from Express Scripts would be $50. So the next time I saw my doctor I asked him to write me a 3-month prescription for this particular drug, explaining the price difference. "Do you want me to do the same for your generics?" he asked. No, I told him, I wanted to keep those with my local pharmacy. "Why?" he asked. "Because they're nice people, and I want them to stay in business, and it's not that much money," I said. "That's the first time I've heard anybody say that," he replied.

Judy and her staff have done all my laundry for years, because I'm a lazy sonofabitch and because her prices for wash-dry-fold are so reasonable. One of the pleasures of doing business with Judy is the pleasure of doing business with Judy, she's that nice. She treats all of her customers like friends, and we're very old friends by now. I sometimes bring her repair work to do, like replacing a button on a jacket, and I have the hardest time getting her to accept money for these little services (I usually lose). Sometimes when a bill is $10.50 she'll say, "Just give me ten." Recently I had a bill for $9.50. "This time you keep the change," I said. Judy ends every transaction with "Thank you so much." It's her trademark. For a short while she tried running a little dim sum and tea shop on Seventh Avenue. On the sign, under the name Judy's, it said, in quotes, "Thank you so much!"

I've bought all my TVs and air conditioners since 1987, when I moved to Park Slope from the East Village, at J&R (not to be confused with the big J&R in Manhattan). Ralph is a nice, honest guy, and if he doesn't carry something he can usually order it. His prices may be a little higher than the other J&R or Best Buy, but he usually offers free delivery and installation, the guys he sends out to do the work are always professional and cordial, and I can always call for updates on schedules if I'm waiting for a delivery or service call, which means I can step out if I need to. I love the sign on the shop, which dates back to 1967 and proudly advertises "Color TV." Ralph tells me the sign (with a change of initials) appears in the game Grand Theft Auto. Before Ralph took over the shop in 1992 I used to do business with his father.

I think I have known Ali of Mr. Falafel since the late '70s, when I first lived in the neighborhood. I've seen his sons grow up, really grow up, and join the business. I always enjoy running into Ali on the street, often when he's sitting in front of his other place, Pita Pan, a name he inherited from the prior owner, who I believe is the man we can blame for the dreadful Lemongrass Grill chain of Thai Restaurants. I don't often patronize Pita Pan, even though it's closer to my apartment, because there Ali uses the dreaded flour tortilla wrap instead of pita, name notwithstanding. For a number of years Mr. Falafel used to have a waiter, a really sweet guy, who only worked summers. I learned once that he was an attorney in Alexandria (Egypt, not Virginia), but that he made more as a waiter at Mr. Falafel when the Egyptian courts were closed than he did at his main gig.

I do a great deal of my food shopping at D'Vine Taste, the gourmet shop around the corner, run by a wonderful Lebanese Christian family who can tell you about the good old days, when Beirut was like Paris. The business started about 21 years ago, when Nalie bought Durel's, one of a number of German delis that were common in Park Slope in the old days. At first she kept the business pretty much what it had been, then started introducing gourmet and middle eastern foods. Over time she expanded into an adjacent storefront and brought in family members Roger and Mona. While they carry a number of middle eastern specialties, it's not really a middle eastern food shop, but more like a cozy, mini-version of places like Dean and DeLuca or Zabar's, with a wide range of gourmet products, cheeses, and deli meats. They carry a nice selection of prosciutto, serrano ham, fabulous mortadella (studded with pistachios and prosciutto), and the great Central European-style salamis made by Piller's of Ontario. And they always remember which salamis I liked best, even if I can't. They also sell homemade prepared foods, cooked by the marvelous Mona, some Middle Eastern, some European, some hybrid. And Roger, who, I learned years ago, really knows his beer, is now a master baker, having studied at the Culinary Institute of America. His croissants are among the best you'll find in New York. And they carry the best bagels in New York too, from the Bagel Hole, further south in The Slope, which they offer at cost since they want their customers to have the best accoutrements.

There's a lot to be said for these long-term relationships. It's a symbiosis between the social and the mercantile that was taken for granted for hundreds of years, and which we're quickly losing. I'm fortunate to be living in a neighborhood that supports small businesses like these (and fortunate to have bought a place in the neighborhood before I was priced out). Others in the neighborhood could highlight other businesses they love. And while some of the newer residents may not have the same history with these businesses that I have, it's amazing how quickly a good small businessperson becomes an old friend.

Businesses mentioned:

167 Lincoln Place (between 7th & 8th Avenue)

Palma Chemist
159 7th Avenue (corner Garfield Place)

United Laundry (Judy's)
139 7th Avenue (Between Carroll and Garfield)

J&R Television and Air Conditioning
108 7th Avenue (between President and Union)

Mr. Falafel
226 7th Avenue (between 3rd & 4th Streets)

D'Vine Taste
150 7th Avenue (Between Garfield and Carroll)


Anonymous Jared McKinley said...

You're lucky to live in a city that still HAS local business. There is so little here in Tucson left. And throughout the country, especially in the suburbs, they are almost nonexistent.

3:00 PM  
Anonymous Robin said...

I lived in Park Slope from 1984 - 1990. I can't believe I never ran into you!

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Rocky said...

I chanced upon to view your blog and found it very interesting as well as very informative, i was need such type information, which you have submitted. I really thankful to you, this posting help a huge number of people. Great ... Keep it up!

6:37 AM  
Blogger Dayna said...

To give these businesses a bit more boost, consider putting your reviews up on Yelp. I got total satisfaction dissing Cohen's Optical who shafted Ned on his last pair of specs. A friend happened to check Yelp just before she was going to replace a pair of glasses, and so they lost at least one customer!

3:45 PM  

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