Ancient Romans often believed in a genius loci (jee-nyuhs low-kigh), the presiding deity or spirit of a location. Today, it refers to the distinctive character or energy of a place. It is with that concept in mind that West Side Rag is introducing a new monthly feature called Upper West Sider of the Month. On the first day of each month, we will feature a special person who embodies the unique spirit of the Upper West Side. We invite readers to nominate someone exceptional who fits that description and lives and/or works in the neighborhood. Please send nominations to email@example.com
By Andrea Sachs
They come when something is cracked or broken, too hot, too cold, or not working at all. They come with questions: What’s the best glue? The best paint? The best vacuum cleaner, or iron? They come needing replacements: My fan is not working! Our microwave just died! Or: I tried to open this, my husband tried to open it – we’re desperate! When all else fails, many Upper West Siders with a home problem have learned to come see Baba.
As Yeats famously wrote, “The center cannot hold.” Neither can the bathroom curtain rod. That’s why Baba, the manager at Gartner’s Hardware on West 72nd Street, is a legend in the 10023 zip code where he works and well beyond. (Yes, he is known to all as just Baba – like Marilyn or Elvis.) Befitting his selection as West Side Rag’s first West Sider of the Month, Baba ( né Babicar Fall), 69, is a presiding spirit in the neighborhood where he has worked for more than 30 years. He’s a fixture, famous and beloved. You can’t miss him — his lean, ectomorphic presence among the crowd of well-padded West Siders is arresting. So is his solemn, regal mien.
The dedication of Baba’s ever-growing following gives the Swifties a run for their money. Long-time customer Evelyn Renold is typical: “I think he’s a genius! He’s just great!” Renold says she once took a broken toaster to Gartner’s, certain they would just advise her to buy a new one. Instead, “Baba took the toaster and I don’t know what he did – he turned it upside down and banged on it, fooled around with it for 15 or 20 minutes, and handed it back to me. It worked! Didn’t want a dime. He’s usually pretty poker-faced, but when I thanked him profusely, he just smiled ear to ear. He was just so pleased that he was able to do this for me. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Baba was born in 1954 in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. He was one of four sons and seven daughters. His father was a government official, the director of the payroll office. With the exception of his frequently pregnant mom, it was a notably lean clan. Says Baba, “All my family, my brothers, everybody is skinny.” He grew up speaking Wolof, a Niger-Congo language, and learned French in school.
After working as a ship’s mechanic in Senegal, and trying out life in Paris, Baba set off for the United States in 1986. Of those days, Baba says cryptically, “I was a playboy.”
When he first came to New York City, Baba knew exactly one person, his Senegalese friend Sadio. But that was not an impediment to building an active social life, which soon revolved around the vibrant Senegalese community in Harlem. For five years, Baba was employed by a now-defunct hardware store on Columbus Avenue. He knew how to fix many things from his life as a mechanic in Africa. “I didn’t speak English that well, but I knew how to make keys from Senegal. I knew light bulbs,” Baba remembers. It was a natural fit.
Baba started at Gartner’s in 1991. “The boss liked me so much,” he recalls. “I was a hard worker. I knew how to answer customers.” Baba worked to learn the names in English of all of Gartner’s gadgets and gizmos. He quickly nailed it (as it were).
Fast forward a few decades. Nabil Alsaidi, who has owned Gartner’s for the past 10 years, says “We consider him family. We’re like brothers.” Why? “Because of his personality, honesty, and hard work.”
Today, the hardware shop that Baba helped to build is jam-packed with every conceivable household device and product, yet tightly organized nonetheless (think profusion, not confusion). Chockablock with assorted housewares, mops, brooms, cleaning supplies, tools, wires, candles, extension cords, and cans of paint, the 60-year-old enterprise has almost everything. And Baba knows where every last bolt is buried.
He also knows legions of clients, some of them going back as far as his first year in the store. “I have a lot of customers,” Baba says proudly. “If they have a problem with something in the house, I tell them, call me anytime.” That offer extends to his African family network too.
“Customers have gone to Senegal and called up my family and gone to see them,” Baba says delightedly.
The father of four adult sons and one daughter, Baba is not currently married. It’s no wonder—in a city of workaholics, Baba can hold his own. Baba worked seven days a week until three years ago. “I love to work!” he exclaims. “I don’t want to stay home.” Now, he works only six days a week, but he admits that he often drops by the store for a few hours on his day off: “I don’t want something to be missing. I don’t want to just call and check,” he says.
Baba lives in Harlem and says he never cooks for himself; he’s a devotee of takeout food from a trio of nearby Senegalese restaurants: Le Baobab, Keur Kine and Chez Jacob. The heart of the Senegalese community, sometimes called Little Senegal or Le Petit Senegal, is located in Harlem along West 116th Street.
Baba has an elegance about him, accentuated by stylish African-style clothes that his son Cheikh sews and sends him from Senegal. “I love clothes,” he confesses. “You only live once!” With his mannequin-trim physique, they love him back.
In addition to his busy work schedule, Baba helps many customers with their hardware headaches outside of the store. “I just love helping,” he says. “I don’t say ‘you have to pay me.’ I do it voluntarily. If they offer me something, I say no. They say, ‘Baba, you have to take this or I’m not going to call you anymore to come help me.’ Then after that, I take it.” His commitment is particularly strong towards his elderly customers. “They look at me like a mom! I have to go help them. I go right away. I’m part of this neighborhood. These neighbors are my neighbors.”
It’s been years since Baba has traveled back to Senegal. “I’m very busy here,” he says simply. “I love my job. I love the people. I have no problems, honestly.” Neither do his customers.
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