Small Business Focus: Gold Leaf Stationers


Fasil Yilma at Gold Leaf Stationers.

By Carol Tannenhauser

Fasil Yilma calls it “the Amazon,” fitting when you think of the river of packages that flows from the behemoth internet retailer to households on the Upper West Side.

“Too many a day to count,” a doorman in the West 80s reported.

“The kids are being introduced to shopping by the Amazon and that has changed the culture,” said Yilma, who is co-owner of Gold Leaf Stationers, on Amsterdam Avenue, between 89th and 90th Streets. “People come in and eight and nine-year-olds ask their moms, ‘Why we have to buy it here? We can buy it from the Amazon.’ The moms say, ‘No, we have to support small business.’ The kids say, ‘But there are a lot of things I want to get from the Amazon!’”

That is even more astounding when you consider that Gold Leaf Stationers is the kind of store that can bring out the child in anyone, from the bowl of tootsie rolls on the front counter to the rhino, tiger, and polar bear erasers on the way to Yilma’s office. You might come in for a standard box of number-two pencils, but you’ll be dazzled by the anything-but-standard array of products and services you’ll find, from picture framing to custom engraving; computer paper to oak tag; paints, puzzles, protractors, pencil cases, and pom poms. Gold Leaf is far more than a stationery store. It has had to be to survive.

Internet buying, which Yilma said “really took off in the past year,” is just the latest challenge facing the Ethiopian-born immigrant, now “approaching 50.” He came to this country when he was 19 to study mathematics at the State University of New York at Oneonta. His sister was living here and sent him an application. It was 1989. Yilma spoke little English and “nothing I had in my pockets,” he recalled, in his elegant, poetic prose. Every summer he would come down to the city, where his uncle lived, and work in a stationery store on West 109th Street. After that shift was over he would wait on tables in a nearby restaurant, all to pay for college. He put in 16 hour days.

“I have no problem working hard,” he said, recently, in an interview at the store. “I work seven days a week. I refused to do it before, but now I have to, because I had to reduce the staff when things began to tighten.” He now has one longtime employee and his partner, Neena Walia, who handles the paperwork. Yilma started as her manager when she opened Gold Leaf in 2000, becoming a 50-50 partner in 2005.

“The business started declining when the big stores like Staples came in,” Yilma recalled. “Staples did a job on us. It changed the consumer mind. Because it is big, you think it is cheaper. It did a good deal of damage and many neighborhood stationers went out.”

Gold Leaf “endured” by purposefully not competing directly with the big stores, instead, offering higher-quality and unusual items — French composition books, for example — which Yilma finds at stationery shows. He also turned his focus to Gold Leaf’s extensive arts and crafts supplies.

“Our art supplies were picking up,” he said. “Then, around 2009, here comes Michael’s [the largest retail chain of arts and crafts suppliers in the country], opening on 97th and Columbus. Michael’s gave a huge dent to that part of our business.”

The co-op board that serves as Yilma’s landlord has not made things easier, he said. Yilma was required to remove his 14-year-old trademark green awning — with its sidewalk extension — and merge his now-flat awning with the trademark-blue one of the Sherwin-Williams paint store next door, he said.

“It looks like one big Sherwin-Williams store now,” Yilma said. “We literally lost our identity. Even those who know us thought we went out of business.” Then last August came another blow: a sidewalk bridge, obscuring Gold Leaf’s storefront almost completely. He expected it to be up for three months, but it’s been nearly a year and Yilma sees “no urgency to the work and no end in sight.” All combined, his business is down 30%.

Yilma is a runner. “It’s what keeps me sane,” he said. He’s run 18 marathons, four in New York City. He is used to going the distance. He has five years left on his lease and no intention of folding. In fact, he is diversifying again.

“If I was standing still, just doing stationery, I wouldn’t have survived for 18 years,” he explained. “I’m thinking now to veer toward educational toys. I already introduced a bit of it and it is working. So, I’ll try to push it further, change the front of the store to be more kid-friendly, in an attempt to create more walk-in customers. The Upper West Side is full of families and children. It’s trial and error. Hopefully, it will work. If it doesn’t, I will look for what is going to be next and how I can switch to that. It’s a moving target.”

We love the Upper West Side’s small businesses and want them to survive. That’s one reason we’ve been profiling them for over a year now. Shop local, and read previous articles in our series!

NEWS | 27 comments | permalink
    1. dannyboy says:

      “The business started declining when the big stores like Staples came in,” Yilma recalled. “Staples did a job on us. It changed the consumer mind. Because it is big, you think it is cheaper.
      =========================================
      For my purposes the ‘big store’ value proposition doesn’t work. Small is beautiful.

    2. stu morris says:

      I have wonderful memories going to my local stationary store as a kid. Thats where we would buy our “oak tag” and “dry cells” for our school projects. Thats where would buy wiffle balls and Spaldeen “rubber pinkies”. The owners were an older couple who put their children through college running that store, not unlike my own grandparents who owned a ‘mom and pop’ textile shop on Orchard Street.

      I aim to make sure my daughters understand the importance of keeping small mom-and-pop stores alive.

    3. Judy says:

      Thank you for sharing this store on the site. It place is a gem of the neighborhood and a reason I love living on the UWS.

    4. Joe Rappaport says:

      Gold Leaf is a great store, and I love going there whenever I’m in the neighborhood. (I live several blocks north, closer to another decent stationery store.) For years, Gold Leaf carried a specific size of notebook I used, and it was one of the few places I could find it. (It may still carry the notebook, but I have adopted a different style.) Thanks for the profile; I’ll definitely come by when I’m next nearby.

    5. claudia b says:

      this is a great store. It is a one stop shop for all my writing and office needs. I go many subway stops out of my way to go there.

    6. Catherine Arcure says:

      Gold Leaf and Yilma are neibirhood treasures. How sad he had to remove the identifying green awning. Having to remove it seems spiteful. We need to support gracious and hardworking people like Yilma and his wonderful store.

    7. Katherine says:

      I love this store.
      A year or so ago, I had to pick something up that seemed essential and arrived just as they were locking up. Yilma opened the store so I could get whatever the urgent item was.
      It’s a store that is really fun to explore. I always find things I didn’t know I needed. Great for gifts too.

    8. Gail Ettinger says:

      I buy at Gold Leaf because I don’t have room for dozens of things. If I want one blue pen and one black pen I don’t have to buy a dozen of each.

    9. Gigue says:

      I love Gold Leaf. I buy my art supplies, and other sundries from them. I visit them every few months, just to buy some pens, and pads.

    10. Florence says:

      I was truly upset when this wonderful store disappeared from Broadway but so excited when I learned it had moved to Amsterdam Ave. This store has everything but especially the important is the helpfulness when searching for a particular item. Beats Staples any day.

    11. Helen says:

      Thank you for introducing this stationery store to me. I’ve felt a little lost since Lee’s Art Shop closed whenever I want to buy interesting papers, writing implements and supplies. Thank you!

    12. Jan says:

      So happy to see this story. I always go to Gold Leaf before ordering online. We must support small local business.. we need them. If you notice the grocery stores are closing up along with many specialty stores.
      Yilma always has a smile and I always take a tootsie roll!
      I love Gold Leaf!

    13. Linda says:

      We LOVE Gold Leaf and always go there first.

    14. Sonja says:

      LOVE this store! They seem to have everything and so many wonderful things you never imagined. It’s fun just going in and so much nicer to see and choose actual products than ordering from online photos. Plus the people are terrific.

      But it’s true that people forget Gold Leaf is there and go automatically to Staples, then complain they can’t find what they want.

      PATRONIZE this store. It’s a treasure we don’t want to lose!

    15. Lynda R says:

      This store is a treasure. Please don’t give up, Yilma! Please continue to offer those unique items. It’s true this store is a bonanza stationery and craft/art supplies. I bring my niece and nephew here every chance I get.

    16. Ken says:

      I shop at Gold Leaf for my stationery needs and urge other neighbors to do so as well. Sidewalk sheds stay up for eons and are killing local businesses (Cardeology, for example). The WSR should do an article on the problem.

    17. VWA says:

      Such a fabulous store! I always buy birthday presents in there–who doesn’t need a new notebook and glitter pens? So glad this store is here.

    18. Peggy Sue says:

      I love this store and go here for my craft and stationary needs. I love looking at all the stuff and end up buying something else that catches my eye. So glad that you did this story.

    19. NYYgirl says:

      LOVE Gold Leaf. I know exactly the store on W 109th (in my neighborhood) which just recently had to close as well, and what they went through while they were open (for decades, btw). Small, then expanded, then forced to become small again, finally closed. Typical depressing UWS small business story. My kids still miss them. I go well out of my way to patronize Gold Leaf whenever I can. Usually I will go to find something semi-specific for a gift and then end up marveling at the huge selection of less usual items & buying more than I need, but never regretting it. I wish them everything good!!!

    20. Wendy says:

      These guys are great. If I go in and need something they don’t have in stock, they order it for me This store was an outgrowth of the store that was on the corner of Broadway and 89th St. They had to move after the Landlord raised the rent dramatically. These are tough times for small stationers. I hope after this story that the community comes out to support them!

    21. Sarah says:

      I’ve never been to this place. Will definitely check it out!

    22. dmg says:

      This place is the best. The selection of stuff is amazing – great pens, notebooks, art supplies. Their framing is excellent too. The service is extraordinary. And prices are really the same. Fasil even helped me home with a picture that was too heavy for me to carry.

      It is important to support the store. When we lose stores like this, we lose our neighborhood.

    23. Judy says:

      I love this store and Yilma is wonderful. The other day I needed a flash drive and the thought of walking into the Staples near work to find a tiny flash drive in that huge store – and to find a sales person to help – made me tired just thinking about it. Luckily I was at home, went to Gold Leaf, Yilma handed me the flash drive (after giving me a choice of two) we had a nice conversation, and I was done. Quick, pleasant, informed etc etc. This store, Murray’s: two neighborhood jewels.

      • Maria says:

        Gold Leaf sounds like a wonderful place! Also in the same vein is Stationery and Toy on West 72nd Street near Columbus Avenue. They have everything, including black and white thread. Not sure if WSR has done a profile on them, but if not — maybe it’s time!

    24. ST says:

      I also love Gold Leaf. It has all the stationery or school supplies you could want as well as a truly wonderful selection of art supplies.

    25. JV says:

      I have passed by many times, at times stopping to admire the window display, but have never entered. That changes tomorrow. Tomorrow I’m going in and buying something.

      Now more than ever, I have a sort of visceral NEED to support “the little guy”. Which is why I recently trekked to Zingone Bros. to get a cucumber rather than follow the herd to Trader Joe’s or Fairway, both a mere hop, skip, and pirouette from my apartment.

      • dannyboy says:

        Admirable.

        Also, to add my two cents (plain): TJ had no plain seltzer to sell when I went. That tempered my enthusiasm some. (I did enjoy their Cheese Enchiladas Rojo, though.)