The Neighborhood’s Small Businesses are in Crisis; One Helper Sees It All and Does What He Can

Alejandro Martinez walking his beat.

By Susanne Beck

When Alejandro Martinez quietly steps in the door of small businesses on the Upper West Side, proprietors have no idea there is a potential life saver in their midst. Need financial assistance? Marketing support? Some technical expertise? He has answers for each of them and more.

The lanky, winter-parka’ed, multi-lingual – and masked – recent alum of NYU’s Wagner School graduate program in public service is a neighborhood support specialist with the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, part of a newly formed 6-member team that makes up the Manhattan arm of the NYC Small Business Resource Network (SBRN). The network was launched late last September in response to the crisis facing many of the city’s over 230,000 small businesses (defined as fewer than 100 employees). According to a press release, the program is a “one-stop shop to accelerate the recovery of small businesses and strengthen the city’s economy.”

Martinez checking in with a small business owner.

The UWS is one of Alejandro’s three assigned territories. On one of his recent rounds in the neighborhood, Alejandro shared his approach, his setbacks, and his hopes for the future.

This morning, for a swing up and down almost a mile of upper Broadway, Alejandro carries his a run-of-the-mill tote with a few relationship building tools: dozens of oversized, well designed postcards highlighting program features along with contact information; several boxes of surgical masks for those stores that don’t have any; forms to capture basic information about the business; and extra business cards for follow up. He warmly offers these goods – a welcome package of sorts – to coax the businesses toward assistance they might need to get through the devastating effects of COVID-19 and the havoc it is wreaking on sales and customer traffic.

Alejandro always starts his visits with a simple introduction of the program and himself before asking for a manager or ideally, an owner of the shop. He lays an information card on the counter while he speaks. “Ninety percent of the time the owner or the manager is not there so we just drop information and hopefully someone will call us back,” he explains. Almost five months into the program, he knows that the response rate in such situations is low so he does what he can to gather as much information as possible to enable some follow up on his end, by himself or a topic-specific specialist. “You go to twenty businesses, one is going to engage,” he says. If he can get a business card and/or if there is a specific need – say creating a new website for online sales – he will call back.

Helpful items.

One of his first stops this morning is at a tiny nail salon on the east side of 98th Street and Broadway. The owner, a gracious Asian woman, is in and very interested in learning more about financial assistance and maybe website support. Judging from the lack of customers in the store – one young woman enjoys a pedicure while eight other lounge chairs sit empty – it has been quieter than normal.

Alejandro explains later that the visit was unusual for a spa or salon. Very often, staff at those businesses seem to be particularly wary when he enters. “What is a man doing in here? “, their expressions seem to say. For many others, the lanyard he wears around his neck for identification is also off putting. “They think I am an inspector or that it is going to be something bad… so they are like ‘just give me information, I am working, and go away’.”

Up the block at a sliver of a variety store on Broadway between 98th and 99th Streets, the tone is more dispiriting but in keeping with what Alejandro will find on the streets ahead. Neither the owner nor the manager is on site. When asked about the business flow, the salesclerk looks down and mumbles in a thick accent: “summer bad, now, nothing.”

Not surprisingly, Alejandro has found that smaller businesses have greater needs. Larger operations tend to have CPAs who have already filed for PPP, for instance. “The smaller ones are like, the son is helping, or the daughter is helping, or someone in the family is helping them. They don’t know how to do it. They don’t have time to do the intake form because they are so small, and they are working, and they don’t have time to sit with you.” A stop at a dry cleaner further down Broadway shows the challenges that language barriers can present, as well. The owner tells Alejandro he is Korean and will need a translator to complete the paperwork. Alejandro has a Korean-speaking specialist follow up.

Since hitting the streets in the fall, Alejandro has covered 50+ blocks and hundreds of storefronts in the UWS, a number that continues to grow each week. Anecdotally, he has observed that with the exception of the main crosstown arteries, cross streets have fared worse than avenues. Broadway seems to be suffering more than Columbus or Amsterdam.

Alejandro also responds to online queries from neighborhood businesses, an area where he has had much more success. Upper West Sider Paula Landry from IdeaBlizzard Productions, a film production and media consulting company, is one proprietor who has enjoyed great results, having found Alejandro by logging on to one of the program’s websites,  www.smallbiz.nyc or https://www.nycsmallbusinessresourcenetwork.org/.  Paula says Alejandro was quick to follow up.

She gushes when asked about the help she has received.  “Alejandro reached out to me and has been doing it since – what a blessing! He’s an amazing person and submits deadlines, loan opportunities, funds, events, grants – and I’ve applied to everything!” Paula highlights the assistance she received – grant funding and technical support – to build a new website.  “We’re working with a talented designer now – Nana Yaa Ansah of Milk & Honey Creative Studio – and we’re very excited to launch it soon.”

Despite the online successes, Alejandro is realistic about the hard, street-level work that remains. And he is grateful for the opportunity to help, adding that he often feels he has learned more than he’s shared and that he tries to go beyond what the program expects from him, on paper. “I will write down if it a storefront is vacant or if it’s for rent and that will help us with the next phase which is policy. What are we going to do with all these vacancies? This is not something that we are required to do but we are doing to help.”

Alejandro also says that he is hopeful when he returns to his own Upper West Side home every night. “I think I go home optimistic because you can notice that [the store owners] have already been through a lot but that they are like, scaling up….and you can notice that they are resilient. They are diversifying, they are selling masks, they are trying to survive. So, you go home optimistic, of course.”

After a thoughtful pause, he adds: “You are trying to help… [The store owners] feel better that someone is there, that the Chamber is taking care of the businesses, that the city is doing something. So, I feel good, to be honest.”

To reach Alejandro Martinez and to learn more about the SBRN, call or text Alejandro at (516) 570-3774 or go online to https://www.nycsmallbusinessresourcenetwork.org/.

COLUMNS | 39 comments | permalink
    1. LivableCity says:

      Great to hear this level of detail about such a desperately needed support for small business. Hang in there Alejandro! Thanks WSR.

    2. js says:

      Thank you!!

      We have been doing all of our non-food shopping at local/small stores and doing take-out only from local, small non-chain restaurants.

    3. LL says:

      Good to know

    4. Julia says:

      Upper Broadway? The 90’s? I thought you were writing about the 130’s or 150’s or even higher.

      • BronxBoychik says:

        From Wikipedia.org:
        “The Upper West Side (UWS) is …. bounded by … West 59th Street to the south, and West 110th Street to the north.”
        Therefore, the 130’s, 150’s, etc. are, as we used to say in punchball/stickball, “outta bounds!”

    5. NYYgirl says:

      Oh my goodness, what an uplifting article, thank you!
      Alejandro is awesome 🙂

    6. Ann & Jack's daughter says:

      Julia,
      Have you recently walked up Broadway from 96th Street to about 110th Street? It’s filled with vacant storefronts, people sleeping on mattresses, and many people asking for money. From 96 to 110 (I walk this stretch often) at least 5 or 6 people will ask you for money. It’s terrible that these individuals are living this way. (I suspect untreated mental illness.) In any event, it’s a much different walk on Columbus and Amsterdam. Related? Who knows? Just telling you the facts.

      • Helen says:

        You just described B’way and Amsterdam from 68th to 86th. I’m guessing this is happening in more places than most people realize, especially if they don’t leave their own neighborhoods.

        • Ann & Jack's daughter says:

          Helen,
          I didn’t realize the 70s and 80s approached what we are seeing from 96 to 110.

    7. rteplow says:

      Thanks for this article! Maybe we could all give a shout-out to small businesses we want to survive. I’ll start:

      Kathe Hair
      80th Street just east of Amsterdam (north side of the street)

      Great haircuts and coloring and, before the pandemic, a great community feeling in the shop. Kathe, the sole proprietor, is a great neighbor and friend of the upper west side; she got a tree planted on our street, for one thing.

      Bonus fact: she introduced me to my husband!

    8. Judy Kas says:

      Alejandro, please go see Elena at Toscana Shoe Repair, 2348 Broadway (85 — 86 Sts,)

      • Susanne Beck says:

        He has! That’s where I (the reporter) met him! Thanks for the shout out! Keep them coming!

    9. js says:

      Here are a few:

      Gold Leaf Stationers – Amsterdam and 89th St
      Stationery and Toy World – 72nd St.
      Paper House – Amsterdam and 72/73
      West Side Kids – Amsterdam

      (and not the UWS but a lovely store, Domus on West 44th )

      • Alejandro says:

        Thanks, @js! Noted. I’ll visit:
        Gold Leaf Stationers, Stationery and Toy World,
        Paper House and West Side Kids soon. Thanks again.

    10. Citygirl says:

      Many many thanks!!! I am a NYC small business owner and greatly appreciate your efforts. Although I am not a storefront, so there won’t be any drop in visit from Alexandro, I am still very happy to see such a dedicated effort being put forth. Just one more reason to absolutely adore this magnificent city!!!

      • Susanne B Beck says:

        you can still access their resources on line – or get in touch with Alejandro. all the contact information is at the end of the article. you don’t have to be a storefront to benefit. paula, mentioned in the piece, was not either. good luck!

      • Alejandro says:

        Hi @Citygirl you can submit your business case through our website: smallbiz.nyc We will be happy to help you.

    11. Adrienne says:

      Another wonderful small business
      The Salon Above
      As the name says, above the metro diner on the north west corner of Broadway@100th Street.

    12. lynn says:

      If Alejandro hasn’t done this already, maybe he’d be interested in checking out, CU Launderette, AJA Lock and Key, Mel’s Shoe Repair, and West End Discount which are all located on the south side of 72nd and close to WEA. We’ve already lost the nail salons and dry cleaners on that block as well as the a great deli, so it would be nice if the shops that are still struggling could get some kind of assistance. 🙂

      • HelpTheUWS says:

        Thanks for trying to help. Sadly, our neighborhood has failed us, it’s not the small business community. The UWS has become overrun with the homeless, filthy streets, shoplifters, hostile panhandlers, drug addicts and on and on. Where is Linda Rosenthal and our local Council? To patronize stores that remain on W.72nd we have to step over homeless men smoking crack and drinking. Where is the 20th precinct? Where is anyone?

      • Susanne B Beck says:

        Thanks, Lynn. I will pass this along to Alejandro and will check them out as well for a possible profile.

        • lynn says:

          A big thanks to YOU and Alejandro! And of course the WSR for publishing all of these great stories and updates. 🙂

      • Helen says:

        Don’t forget about the tiny dry cleaners @ 266 and the hair salon. Sandwiched in between the Superette and the now permanently closed Pier 72 Restaurant.

        • Helen says:

          So sorry, I meant to say, ‘in between the West End Discount and Pier 72 Restaurant.’ The Superette is across the street on the corner. I should give my brain time to kick in before posting in the morning!

        • Alejandro says:

          Thanks, Helen! Noted, I’ll visit 266 Cleaners soon. Thanks again.

      • Alejandro says:

        Thanks, Lynn! Noted, I’ll visit CU Launderette, AJA Lock and Key, Mel’s Shoe Repair, and West End Discount soon. Thanks again.

    13. Karen says:

      Please feature — and help — Sprint Sports, a small store that sells sneakers, located on Broadway between 93 and 94th. The staff and owner are very helpful and knowledgeable, but they are really suffering. Located next to a huge construction site, the store has been invisible for a very long time.

      • Bill says:

        Yes, you are correct. A teriffic store that needs to survive. Hoping for the best.

      • Susanne B Beck says:

        Thanks, Karen. do you know the name of the owner? I would like to follow up.

        • Karen says:

          Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of the owner. But he is there all the time behind the counter. There is no way I can check in person until the weekend to ask his name so I hope you can follow-up without it.

      • Alejandro says:

        Thanks, Karen! Noted, I’ll visit Sprint Sports soon. Thanks again.