By Joy Bergmann
For 40 years, custom tailor Eddie Ugras helped Upper West Siders take it in and let it out – shortening, shaping, fitting and retrofitting wardrobes to meet their most exacting specifications. Customers called him a “master surgeon”, a “rock star”, a “hero” capable of working miracles on a tuxedo just hours before a wedding.
But this past weekend, Ugras, 74, packed up his tape measure and left his 290 square foot shop on the third floor of 125 West 72nd Street for good.
“I decided not to renew my lease,” he tells WSR. “I decided to let it go.” Urgas says his rent was $2,500 a month, plus approximately $3,000 a year to cover his portion of annual increases to the building’s real estate taxes – as is typical with commercial leases.
Ugras isn’t calling this next phase a retirement – yet – but he is taking a break and figuring things out from his New Jersey home. “I don’t know how I feel about this situation,” he says. “Some of my kids say I should retire. Others say if I retire I will get old. I’m energetic and act younger than I am.”
News of the closure took some customers by surprise.
“I was stunned. Eddie’s such a fixture in the neighborhood. I’ve used him since I moved up here in 1984,” says Paul Jeromack. “It just kills me that such an important service is gone. There are no tailors that I know of that are just tailors, not dry cleaners who do alterations.”
Ugras says the building’s landlords – the Hiller family – are “good people” who were kind and collaborative. However, making the rent was a challenge. “If they’d have given me a better deal, I might’ve stayed another couple years,” he says. “That’s life in New York City.”
Other tenants in the building are similarly concerned about rising costs and the viability of running an UWS retail operation in the digital age.
“Amazon is killing us,” says Donna Schofield who has owned and operated Stationery & Toy World since 1986. Back then there were no online competitors and her rent was around $5,500 a month. Now it is $20,000 a month. Schofield also pays thousands more annually to cover a percentage of the annual increase in property taxes charged to the landlord by the City.
To make the business work, Schofield says she’s cut corners including changing her insurance provider, working more hours herself and buying more merchandise directly from producers.
While some residents may like the convenience of ordering toys, office supplies and groceries from online giants, Schofield asks them to consider the shortsightedness of that strategy. She says local shops offer immediate access to goods and services — access that might disappear without local support. “Where will you go when you need something right away?”
She adds that it pays to browse shops like hers to compare prices. “Amazon’s not always cheaper.” But it seems not enough people are stopping in to find that out, let alone experience what personal service can be like.
During our conversation, Schofield simultaneously attended to myriad customers’ needs. A man traveling to England asked about a power adapter; she grabbed one from a high shelf and wished him a good trip. A nanny purchased a Playmobil set for a boy under her care; Schofield pointed out they’d just received a new horse-themed set, had she spotted it as well? A woman needed olive envelopes; Schofield had just the right shade of green.
New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin called the store one of his favorites during a recent WSR interview, “Whatever you’re looking for, they always have.”
Schofield’s eyes swelled with tears when asked about the future of Stationery & Toy and her three full-time employees. “I think I can hold my own. But I don’t know for how long.” Her message to Upper West Siders? “Shop small, shop local. It’s really important for the neighborhood.”
Paul Jeromack says losing Eddie Ugras was bad enough. “I love the fact that Stationery & Toy is still there. God, I don’t want anything to happen to them.”
The building’s landlord, Jeff Hiller, says he shares that sentiment. “We want every tenant to stay. We always try to work something out to keep them. We’re tremendously reasonable.”
Jason Hiller, Jeff’s son and the man running day-to-day operations, added, “We’ve had great relationships. We never look to squeeze people.”
Reasonable people can disagree about what’s reasonable. But it’s clear that the financial risks faced by small businesspeople are considerable and climbing.
Eddie Ugras seems content to have left those concerns behind. The immigrant from Istanbul is proud of what he built from his tiny shop.
“To do a good business on the third floor, you have to be a good tailor,” he says. “99.9% of my customers, they love me a lot.” Some regulars burst into tears when they learned he was leaving. “People say, ‘How can you move? How can you move?’ It happens.”
During his career, he worked six days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day, but says it was worth it. “I raised four children from that business. And guess what? All four of them: Doctors. Three MDs and one PhD.”
Ugras hasn’t decided if he’ll do private consultations or even open another shop after he takes a breather. The Hiller family says they would welcome him back to their properties any time. So perhaps we haven’t seen the last of him.
“I love the Upper West Side,” Urgas laughs. “My favorite place in the world!”