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!