By Carol Tannenhauser
When asked what she wanted to do, my 17-year-old goddaughter, visiting from California the week before Christmas, didn’t hesitate: “Go shopping,” she said. But it wasn’t the department stores of the East Side that beckoned her; it was the shops along Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, West 72nd Street and Broadway that she wanted to explore. We spent a wonderful morning meandering in and out of local stores, shopping bags filled with presents piling up on our arms.
Along the way, we passed the empty shell of Isabella’s, a neighborhood institution that closed in May, literally, overnight. Next to it, the woman’s clothing store Babette was also shuttered, as was the old location of KTCollection jewelry, a few blocks down. KTCollection is now located in the former home of Roslyn, the jewelry and hat store named for its flamboyant owner, who called it quits last year after two decades. Around the corner, we passed what was Amaryllis, a 29-year-old neighborhood florist that closed its doors in April.
Amaryllis was the first store we profiled in our Small Business Focus series, launched in 2017 to do the best thing we could think of to support local businesses (besides shop in them): give them exposure. Amaryllis was doomed before we started the series. Lou, the owner, had given up, saying it was just too hard to do business in the city. Yet, the other stores we profiled are holding on, even thriving.
So, what is the retail reality on the Upper West Side, in a time that experts around the country are calling “America’s Retail Apocalypse”?
Statistically speaking, not that great. A Small Business Health Report published by City Council Member Helen Rosenthal in November stated that of the 1,332 storefronts on the Upper West Side, “12% (161) were unoccupied” as of this summer. The New York Times reported that “healthy vacancy levels [are] generally defined as about 5 percent.” “Of the major commercial streets, Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue had the highest percentage of empty storefronts,” Rosenthal’s report stated. “Broadway had the largest number of empty storefronts (57), followed by Amsterdam Avenue (44) and Columbus Avenue (32).”
On the plus side, the report said, “According to the West Side Rag…94 businesses have opened so far this year, and 63 businesses have closed. We’re ahead of the curve. Yes, Caesar’s Pizza, 72nd Street Bagel, and Bourbon Street Bar are gone, but J.G. Melon, Mama’s Too, My Pie, Maison Pickle, and Books of Wonder are here. Yes, we lost West Side Market and Artie’s, and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas is set to show its last film sometime in January. Okay, there are no words.
Last month, the City Council took a step toward helping small businesses survive by raising the threshold at which the city’s Commercial Rent Tax kicks in, providing nearly 3,000 businesses with some relief.
As for “greedy landlords,” generally blamed for the demise of Mom-and-Pop shops, our series revealed some “decent” ones as well, willing to work with their tenants. To paraphrase a nursery rhyme, “When they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad, they are horrid.”
Word is the market is already “self-regulating”; commercial rents are coming down. Wrote the New York Post in November, “Along Broadway from West 72nd to 86th Street, rents are down 15 percent from a year ago and 8 percent since spring to an average of $291 per foot. Similarly, along Columbus Avenue from West 66th to 79th Street, rents were down 16 percent from the fall of 2016, and another 2 percent since this spring to $338 per foot.”
The other major factor is the internet: bricks and mortar faces long odds against the convenience of shopping from the couch. This series (and my goddaughter) showed me the difference between just buying things and shopping. Shopping is a social experience, a chance to meet interesting and diverse people, devoted to their businesses and community, and to build relationships with them. There’s something immensely comforting about being a regular.
WSR will continue our Small Business Focus series in 2018. Please send us the names of your favorite local stores — the ones that would break your heart if they closed. We’ll profile as many as we can. And you…shop local!
You can read our previous small-business profiles here.