Whatever You’ve Heard, Independent Retail in New York Is Thriving

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The total number of retail businesses climbed from 27,735 in 2003 to 32,389 a decade later — an increase of 16 percent. Photo: @Marc Yankus/@Marc Yankus

To be a shopper in this city is to experience loss. We all carry memories of awnings past, and reflexively look for vanished haunts: the paperback bookstore that also rented VHS tapes, the toy shop with the Power Ranger knockoffs, the diner with the foul coffee and the friendly vibe. Some businesses simply go obsolete. Others wither after the owner dies, or discovers that his partner’s been embezzling for years. But whenever a little store closes, we credit that same demonic force: the rent. It can feel like a whole ecosystem is being obliterated by corporate juggernauts, and sometimes it is. When a cluster of old buildings housing a dozen businesses came down along Broadway in the Seventies a few years ago, they were replaced by a CVS and a Marshalls — that’s it. Some high-rent blocks sit empty, zombies chasing a long lease. 

Yet independent stores endure and even proliferate, like pines on a rocky mountaintop. Each is fragile; the species is ineradicable. In ethnic enclaves, new New Yorkers scrabble together savings and open up sari shops or groceries. Many fail, some survive. Food, at least, is one retail sector that Amazon can’t wipe out.

The drugstore juggernauts are nearly in retreat. The big three are in the process of consolidating — Walgreens owns Duane Reade and is attempting to buy Rite Aid — dampening a boom market among pharmacy-school graduates. The result, says Frank Buonagurio, the owner of Frank’s Pharmacy in Jackson Heights, is that “young pharmacists can’t get work, but they can get a little money from their family and rent a location. Drive around Queens: There’s corner stores everywhere.” After fire gutted his own store last year, Buonagurio moved his two blocks away and discovered a completely different customer base. “In the old store, nobody would spend more than a dollar on hand lotion. Now we have beautiful soaps and $10 hand lotions. But we still offer the same service.” He still stocks the cheap stuff, too. The fire almost wiped out his business; attentiveness resurrected it.

Data on independent stores is sketchy, but according to the Department of Labor, the total number of retail businesses climbed from 27,735 in 2003 to 32,389 a decade later — an increase of 16 percent. Perhaps a fifth of those are chain stores, but their proportion appears to stay relatively stable, suggesting that the trend, for indies, is gently upward. But, of course, mom-and-pop stores are exquisitely vulnerable to economic fluctuations, and in many outer-borough neighborhoods, an abundance of crappy stores leaves residents hungering for, rather than fearing, Target. Nor are all chains created equal: Who minds another Shake Shack?

In certain situations, rapacious landlords with muscle can actually make life easier for local businesses. Whereas co-op owners on the Upper West Side may love the idea of having a cute bookstore downstairs but don’t want an extra $1,000 a month in their common charges, a developer like Brooklyn’s Two Trees can curate a charming retail mix as a marketing tool. (And has done so, at its Domino sugar-factory site.) Youngwoo & Associates is taking a similar approach to the landmarked Bronx General Post Office. “We want to continue the local experience,” says project manager Alexandra Escamilla. “The businesses that get it are the ones who are already there, who understand that there’s demand for things that speak to the neighborhood’s roots.”  

*This article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Independent Retail in New York Is Thriving