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  • Category Archives Slings and Arrows of NYC
  • The Shroud of Kors

    My business, Dubé Juggling, has been in operation since 1975 – all 39 years in Manhattan. A legacy brand, we are fortunate to have over 100,000 names in our database, including many well-known performers such as David Blaine, Penn and Teller, Cirque du Soleil, and Ringling Brothers. But none of this matters much when up against a Goliath and the real estate market of New York City.

    I have leased at 520 Broadway in SoHo for 23 years and was the first “upscale” tenant in my building – a departure from the type of tenancy in the building up to that time – primarily sewing factories. For sometime, I became the showpiece for management as they toured prospective new tenants through my space as an example of where the building was going. My pioneering efforts there were valued and rewarded by more favorable rents. However, as a commercial tenant, there is no rent protection, and business life in a market of rising rents can be harrowing.

    When my management called to set up an appointment in person with my landlord, I was worried. I was sure that there was no problem with our behavior as tenants, no complaints nor any outstanding debt. The landlord would not make a visit for such matters. As scheduled, on July 25th, one day before my birthday, my landlord visited me at 520 Broadway. He sensed my angst as he said, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” and explained that my property was being leased to clothing retail giant Michael Kors and that my lease was not being renewed. A few days later, I received a termination of lease, effective August 31, 2013. Online, the story was already old news. Kors had leased the ground floor retail and second floor. But, the company later opted for the 3rd floor, which my business occupied. 520 Broadway was to be their international headquarters and flagship store.

    This was our banner year for media exposure. We were featured in the New York Times (see here) as well as the Wall Street Journal, and, on October 16, 2013, I was honored to be named one of the “10 Best Classic Stores In NYC” by Gothamist. I was in good stead, alongside legendary shops such as Bloomingdale’s, The Strand, Pearl Paint, Bigelow, and FAO Schwarz. However, at the time, writer Rebecca Fishbein had no idea that I was being given the boot when, ironically, she wrote:

    It may seem strange that one of the city’s standout old school stores caters specifically to jugglers, but at least there’s some proof New York still has a unique soul, even while it seems poised to be eaten alive by banks.

    When I emailed her, the staff of Gothamist, who knew me well, was horrified and immediately requested a phone interview for a follow-up story, which you can read here.

    I have negotiated a stay of execution until January 6, 2014, only a few short weeks away. I have been combing the boroughs of New York City as well as New Jersey to find appropriate space for my business. It has been a daunting task; I occupy an entire floor of my building – 5000 square feet. I have not only a warehouse full of inventory, office equipment, furniture, and machinery to contend with, but I also have to consider employees, a showroom, and a brisk walk-in trade in my relocation. Rents everywhere have soared. Areas of Brooklyn and Queens are as expensive as Manhattan. I have explored a myriad of possibilities. There are simple options available to anyone outside the city, such as just moving the contents of my business temporarily to one’s basement and garage. But in NYC, every square inch of space is coveted and priced accordingly.

    Construction has been underway in the building, seemingly everywhere around us. Everything in the building is about Michael Kors. Time is running out, and I am feeling very closed in as a black netting covers the building for exterior work. Our light, as well as our prospects, have been substantially dimmed by the Shroud of Kors

    Note about the Numbers: My rent is $12,500 per month. However, the market for SoHo is TWICE that (about $25,000 per month per floor). Michael Kors will be renting three floors at $350,000 per MONTH in a 15 year leasing deal. That’s $4,200,000 per year.

  • Brooklyn Is The World, Part 1

    The Game is Afoot

    There was a book that I once gifted to a Brooklynite – When Brooklyn Was the World 1920-1957, by Elliot Willensky. It was a patronizing token effort, because really, at the time, I disliked Brooklyn. To me, having moved to New York City from New England, Brooklyn was always the place where those who could not afford Manhattan lived. Or those too xenophobic or provincial to know better. Manhattan was the epicenter of the universe. How ignorant and foolish I was. Because now, it is known, throughout the world, that Brooklyn is the World. Again.

    For most New Yorkers, chasing or avoiding the next new neighborhood is just reading material. The story is replayed constantly and is, frankly, rather depressing. Pioneers and artists discover new hoods, move there, others follow, developers move in, rents rise, the media reports it, retailers move in, the culture moves in, the hood is finished for all but the lucky and the wealthy. Newcomers stroll, shop, and eat in the trendiest of spots, and are befuddled as to why the hood was ever considered undesirable or dangerous.

    In the 4 boroughs networked by trains, not many stones have been left unturned. Some of the city’s worst areas, like the South Bronx, have long been discovered. In Queens, industrial areas, like Long Island City, are nearly as expensive as Manhattan.

    In Brooklyn, it’s a return to its former glory. Perhaps a little less polished in some ways, but that suits today’s culture just fine. Everywhere throughout the world, people know that Brooklyn is the place to be or to want to be. Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, Bushwick, Gowanus, Sunset Park, Red Hook, DUMBO, Vinegar Hill, Greenpoint. Other areas are long well established: Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Manhattan Beach, Dyker Heights, and Bay Ridge.

    The neighborhoods closest to Manhattan, well-serviced by subway, are the first to go. In recent years, the areas along the L subway line are being progressively sought after. As one neighborhood becomes played out, it’s on to the next subway stop. Only the neighborhoods most resistant to the tide of gentrification are left, places like East New York, Canarsie, or Far Rockaway.

    Recently, for reasons which I will divulge in part 2, I found myself in East Williamsburg. Like Gowanus, I found the low rise, one-story buildings a pleasant respite from the towering, crowding, imposing edifices of Manhattan. Like the Village, where I live, the scale of architecture in places such as Gowanus and East Williamsburg seems to befit humans best.

    A veritable army of graffiti soldiers were busy waging war against the tired, decrepit surfaces of the buildings, with spray paint as weapons. I chatted with a number of them and confirmed that they were working with the approval of the building owners in a welcome trend that respects the rights of property owners. In fact, many owners now solicit and pay for the work of better artists who they know by name. Ironically, I was on Waterbury Street – Waterbury is an industrial town not far from my where I grew up in Bristol, Connecticut. Waterbury always seemed to be poised for discovery, yet it has yet to see the gentrification that Brooklyn has seen and struggles to reinvent itself.

    But I was here on a mission, and a discouraging one at that. I was learning first hand what many others knew and had experienced. I was chasing neighborhoods while being chased and losing ground. It is like a nightmare, being pursued by something large and ominous, all the while being squeezed by time. Fool that I am, I thought, that I would find easily what I needed in Brooklyn. However, as I will explain in Part 2, I am much too late, because, as everyone knows, Brooklyn Is The World :(

    Click here for my complete photo gallery.


  • Opposites

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    On the 26th of July, I often reflect back to 2009. It was utterly remarkable – I don’t recall another day in my life where so many little things went wrong. Incredibly, to add insult to injury, the 26th is also my birthday. I often retell the story to others – and I repost it here. I enjoy reading it again myself and hope you do too.

    Things start well enough on Sunday – my mother calls to wish me Happy Birthday, and from my window, I see a partly sunny day. I suggest to my girlfriend that we go to the Bronx Zoo, something which I had not done in years.

    We opt for public transportation – the subway has a zoo stop. A few moments on the street, however, and it is clear that this is going to be a hot and very humid day. But I remain optimistic – trains are air-conditioned, and the zoo is shaded and also has indoor exhibits.

    This trip requires two trains, a local to the express. When we get to Astor Place, however, the local train is not running at all. Out to the street for a six-block walk to Union Square for the express train. Signs indicate that the number 5 train is also not running for the weekend. We jump in the first express train which arrives quickly – things are starting to look up.

    But once we arrive in the Bronx, I notice the subway stops don’t look quite right. That’s because only the number 5 runs to the zoo, not the 4 which we had taken. A brief conversation with a passenger confirms my mistake and that I will have to take a bus across Fordham Road. We exit the train, armed with our Metro Cards, expecting a free transfer.

    However, the bus driver indicates that we need to go back to the machine on the street and purchase reduced price tickets at $1.10 each for this BX12 bus. Off the bus. Buy tickets. Back on the bus. The ride across Fordham Road is quite depressing.

    Our stop is Southern Boulevard, and the driver tells me I have a choice of two entrances. I forget the East Fordham Road entrance is the main one, which is quite beautiful. Instead, we traipse nearly twice as far down Southern Boulevard for what feels like an interminable distance in the heat to finally arrive at the side entrance. We see “The Complete Experience” listed for $27 per person, with no posting of general admission prices. This already smells of a zoo sadly doing badly. Being late in the day, we opt for general admission at $15 each.

    The day’s humidity is almost unbearable, even in the shaded areas of the zoo. We quickly learn that many of the best exhibits are part of The Complete Experience and can be purchased ala carte. $6 more gets us into the Congo Gorilla Forest – can’t miss that. We watch a movie, and the screen lifts to a panorama of live gorillas behind glass.

    Outside, I overhear a disappointed father of a family asking his wife who is reading a map – “No elephants?” (there are only two left which can only be seen from the Bengali Express monorail). We decide to purchase a drink after building up a thirst – $2.75 buys a small bottle of water.

    A zoo employee tells me that the zoo closes at 5:30 PM, so I pace myself for that. However, an announcement at 5PM tells us the zoo is now closed, so we barely get to the gardens and exhibits at the main entrance, which I was saving until last.

    We exit and make our way back to the Fordham Road bus stop. We purchase those silly tickets for the crosstown BX12 and wait at the bus stop, confident that we have the system mastered. The bus arrives quickly, but it stops inexplicably some distance before the stop and we miss it. Not to be fooled, we move, and the next bus stops behind us. A quick jog in the heat with camera equipment in tow, and we just make the bus.

    The train ride itself is uneventful. However, at our stop at Astor Place, I notice a man with a VERY wet umbrella. In the station, there are SHEETS of water, the likes of which I have never seen before.  Outside, there is a torrential downpour. This provides a most amazing photo opportunity, at the expense of course, a wet journey home. The streets are littered with downed tree branches.

    We decide to go Indian for a birthday dinner. The place I frequent is typically nearly empty, but tonight the place is packed, and there are a couple of huge parties. We are seated at one of the few remaining tables. We wait for some time, but I have a bad feeling that this will be a painfully slow process, so we leave as gracefully as possible.

    My spirits pick up as we opt for Trattoria Spaghetto just a few short blocks away. They are also unusually crowded, and the only remaining table is sandwiched between the kitchen and the service exit to the street used by the waiters. Not daunted by eating on a super highway, we sit and get our menus. I do not need to even open mine, because I am ready to order my favorite dish here: Fusilli Puttanesca. However, our waiter informs me that he is sorry, because tonight there is No Fusilli :(

    For those who believe in such things, it is the ultimate tale of Opposites :)

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Relax

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    This is typically neither a city of positive affirmations nor a place where one comes to relax. Although there have always been small communities with a bend towards New Ageism, Veganism, and other countercultural extremisms, in time, the harsh realities of New York City will grind down most optimists and idealists. Many, like Dwanna, will leave, finding the city just too hard and simply not worth it.

    Idealism is usually a transitory condition of youth, lost as the hard knocks of life put things in perspective. Some remain idealistic, often those who have a privileged lifestyle which acts as a buffer between their world and the world most people know. There are those for whom a hard day is a hard day shopping.

    I recall seeing a segment on TV where John Lennon and Yoko Ono were promoting an idea to create love and peace by making a random phone call to a stranger somewhere in the world and telling them “I love you,” asking that person to do the same, essentially creating a chain of goodwill around the world. Watching it today, I do find it embarrassingly naive. I imagine it’s much easier to entertain such ideas when you are living a gilded palatial life in the Dakotas.

    Strolling in SoHo on Crosby Street, I came across a doorway with a hand written message, appearing cryptic at first owing to the concatenation of words. A second look revealed that someone had made an effort (much less ambitious than Lennon’s) to inject a small dose of peace and tranquility to stressed New Yorkers on the move by suggesting: HOLD FIVE TO THIRTY SECONDS BREATHING NORMAL AS YOU BEG N TO RELAX

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Tar Beach

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    The unique populace, ethnic stew, geography, conditions, and the extreme population density of New York City all shape the customs, the habits, and the rituals of its residents. People find relief from the crushing crowdedness in any way imaginable, repurposing spaces and finding urban alternatives to nature enjoyed by country and suburban folk. Swimming in public fountains, stickball on the streets, etc. One of the ways people have sought relief from summer heat or to enjoy the sun is to head to building rooftops, a place that at one time was commonly referred to as tar beach. On July 31, 2012, in Sunners and Shunners, I quoted from the New York Times:

    “Tar beach,” as all roof rats know, is the urban alternative to the Hamptons on a hot summer day; it’s as near as the flight of stairs outside the apartment door. The 1930?s seem likely as a birth date, because it was around then that the suntan became fashionable for the masses. According to “The City in Slang” by Irving Lewis Allen, getting a tan on tar beach was often the preparation for a trip to Coney Island. “By the 1940?s,” he wrote, “city rooftops, those ersatz beaches, were given the fictitious place name tar beach, alluding to the black tarred and graveled rooftops.”

    In my early years in the city, I spent some time myself on Tar Beach, typically with someone who fancied getting some color, something highly desirable at the time. However, for me, the allure was greatly out-shadowed by the brutal heat with no ocean to dip into as respite. On sweltering summer days, particularly with no breeze, I found little to no relief there from the blistering heat. The black surface of many roofs only adds insult to injury.

    Many reasons are cited for the decline in the use of rooftops in NYC, such as increased security post-9/11 with landlords preventing access. I also feel that the vastly increased concern over skin cancer has virtually eliminated the desire for natural suntans. The inevitable damage to the skin of the over-tanned is all too well-known. As Woody Allen said so poignantly in Annie Hall: “Sun is bad for you. Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat, college.” To which we should add, Tar Beach :)

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Very Slow

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    On the evening of May 18th, I was walking with a friend near my home in Greenwich Village. As we passed the corner where Barnes & Noble recently closed, the area was cordoned off by the police and filled with onlookers. Upon inquiry, I learned that someone had been murdered. From the Gothamist:

    On Friday evening, a 32-year-old man was fatally shot in the middle of Greenwich Village in what police believe was “clearly a hate crime.” Brooklyn resident Mark Carson was walking with friend on Sixth Avenue near West 8th Street around midnight Friday when they were confronted by 33-year-old Elliot Morales and two others. “Do you want to die here?” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Morales asked Carson. Morales then allegedly pulled out a .38-caliber revolver and shot him once in the cheek.

    Carson and his 31-year-old friend were dressed in tank tops and cut-off shorts with boots. Police say when they first were approached by the suspects, Morales and pals started hurling gay epithets at them, including “Look at these faggots” and “What are you, gay wrestlers?” Even when Carson and friend started walking away, the suspects chased after them shouting “faggot” and “queer.”

    Kelly emphasized, “This fully looks to be a hate crime; a bias crime. There were no words that would aggravate the situation that were spoken by the victims. They did not know the confronter. There was no previous relationship.”

    You can read more from the New York Times here.

    In a way, it’s incredulous. That in 2013, when state after state are passing same-sex marriage laws, we would witness an anti-gay hate crime ending in murder, in Greenwich Village, New York City – one of the most liberal and gay-friendly neighborhoods and cities in the United States. Unfortunately, this incident illustrates all too well that racism, sexism, and bigotry are not easily eradicated and that while society and human rights evolve and change, that real change is Very Slow.

    Photo Note: An impromptu memorial established at the scene of the crime at the entrance of the recently closed Barnes and Noble at 396 Avenue of the Americas on the corner of 8th Street.

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • People Live Here

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    Between 1500-1700 B.C.E., the Minoan culture on the island of Crete had a highly developed waste management system with very advanced plumbing and places to dispose of organic wastes. Knossos, the capital city, had a central courtyard with baths that were filled and emptied using terra-cotta pipes. They had flushing toilets, with wooden seats and an overhead reservoir. In 320 B.C.E., Athens passed the first known edict banning the disposal of refuse in the streets. The early Greeks understood the relationship between water quality and public health.

    Public latrines date back to the 2nd century BC in Rome. They became places to socialize. Long bench-like seats with keyhole-shaped openings cut in rows offered little privacy. Sanitation in ancient Rome was a complex system similar in many ways to modern sanitation systems. Their waste treatment management practices were the most developed of any civilization prior to the nineteenth century and superior to that of the Dark Ages, where waste was disposed of in the alleys and streets.

    However, it is 2013, and in a civilized world in the 21st century, one would not expect to need signs telling people that they should not defecate or urinate on the street in front of your home. But, as I have pointed out some time ago, many of the living conditions in New York City are not so much different from the Dark Ages.

    At number 1 Jersey Street, a small two-block alley in NoLita, the residents have had to remind the uncivilized how to behave in public with two signs, prominently displayed, that clearly state, both through written word and graphic illustration: Please. No Pissing or Shitting. People Live Here

    More on sanitation: Pickup Day, Livid

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Bart

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    His name was Bart, and he was quite mean and a bit of a bully really. I had nothing in common with him at all – he was a sports jock, and I hated sports. He forced me to play sports with him – but the brief sessions were just means of humiliation. And he reveled in it.

    Your question is, why would I tolerate this abuse? Answer: He had an Aurora slot car racing setup in his basement. This was a huge thing for the couple of us that befriended him – no one else we knew had such a thing. Vehicles of any sort, particularly FAST ones, have always been a big draw for boys, and we were no different. Whether rockets, planes, trains, or automobiles, the lure and fascination with all things fast and mobile was compelling and irresistible. Enough to endure the slings and arrows of an older bully.

    There was another draw, and that was his bicycle. We waited for the rare opportunity when Bart needed some part or thing. No matter what his need or fancy, we were ready to oblige because he had a bike, which he referred to as his “crate.” When we asked how we would get to a given store, Bart, being impatient to get whatever it was he needed, would invariably tell us, “Take my crate.” The errands were fraught with stress – we had limited time, or we would have to face Bart’s wrath. Nonetheless, it was a bike ride.
    Owning a bike was unquestionably a major rite of passage. Now, you had your own WHEELS. It was a first step towards independence. Now you could go places on your own. The next step would be at 16, learning to drive. But for most of us, one’s own car was not a reality and, at best, one may on occasion be allowed to drive a family car. And the responsibility and consequences of any mishap nearly outweighed the freedom that a car gave. There were no such concerns with a bicycle. Around 12, I got my own bike, and I needed to tolerate Bart no longer. I was a free man.

    The lure of that beautiful, simple, efficient machine is with us today. Over the entire time I have lived in New York City, I have owned a bicycle. However, storage in a small apartment, carrying it up and down stairs, and the need for locking up at a destination all conspire against frequent use. I have not used a bike in years. Citi Bike hopes to change all that with their new rollout yesterday of their bike share program. It’s a long time coming and a really big deal. I wrote about the plan’s announcement on October 25, 2011 in Last to See the Future. The New York Times says:

    For the first time, under cooperatively clear skies, New Yorkers sat astride the city’s first new wide-scale public transportation in more than 75 years: a fleet of 6,000 bicycles, part of a system known as Citi Bike, scattered across more than 300 stations in Manhattan below 59th Street and parts of Brooklyn.

    There were some snags, as to be expected. Many were desperately trying to activate a rental with their credit cards, unaware that the program is initially only available to those who preregistered online. Some registrants had not yet received their key. The map app showing station locations was not working. People were having difficulty locking the bikes on return.

    Also, the plan is often misunderstood. The motive is to provide transportation, not recreation. Base rental periods are for 30-45 minutes. Overtime is prohibitively expensive – $12 per half hour. Daily, weekly, or yearly rentals come with unlimited rides but not unlimited time per ride – all are subject to overtime charges.

    The bikeshare plan is controversial. Parking spots have been eliminated, and the cost to run the system is high. Some new Mayoral candidates are not in favor of the plan at all. Time will tell if the plan is logistically and financially viable. I plan to be an early adopter. No matter what setbacks the system may have, anything is better than borrowing a crate from Bart :)

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Homeowners Too

    The big city, particularly New York City, conjures up images of shysters, swindlers, scammers, and hucksters. Growing up in New England, there was a particular aversion to New York, as opposed to let’s say, the more genteel society of Boston. New York was seen as a place defined by glamour, glitz, and money – like Las Vegas, but with more style, character, and culture.

    A visit to New York City came with forewarnings from family and friends. Watch this and watch that, they said. Don’t do this and don’t go there. Be careful. In the 1970s, such admonitions were certainly prudent, however, being young and brazen, I heeded none of it, and luckily, I was never a victim of anything very serious.

    There is truth to all of this. A big city where tourism is strong means lots of naive, innocent prey and a nice thick jungle for hunters to get lost in after scalping their victims.

    Hurricane Sandy unleashed another storm in its aftermath – a flurry of flim-flam men. And a disaster of this magnitude is a big magnet for thieves – victims of the storm now had to contend with crooks not only from New York, but from out of town as well. Of course, opportunists in the wake of a disaster are nothing new. The day after 9-11, vendors were selling T-shirts in Chinatown: I Survived 9-11. Others were selling memorabilia at Ground Zero. Heinous and unconscionable. Fortunately, our mayor at the time was no-nonsense Rudy Giuliani, who decreed in seconds that such offenses would be SQUASHED immediately.

    As regular readers of this website know, I have been closely involved with cleanup and rehab of a friend’s home in Staten Island. One of the most crucial steps in the aftermath of a flooded home is mold remediation and abatement. To be done properly, this is a long and technical process, best left to professionals. The home must be dried, using commercial dryers. There are chemical treatments and HEPA vacuuming. Mold left in walls can come back with a vengance. Many homeowners hasty to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy found themselves ripping newly installed walls open, only to find mold which required proper cleanup and additional construction.

    But where to find someone reputable and honest in the sea of offerings in Sandy’s aftermath? I spoke to numerous established local businesses specializing in mold remediation. I also turned to Craigslist, where we found our final choice. In retrospect, Craigslist was perhaps not the wisest source for such a serious project, however, good fortune was with us, and we found one of the most thorough and scrupulous individuals I have ever worked with – Art Hull.

    Art, like many who worked for victims of the storm, was from out of town – in this case, Ohio. Art was extremely knowledgeable and technical – more so than the many other local contractors we interviewed. He had previously worked in the Biotech industry in California and was well versed in mold and microbes. But what set him apart from the typical New Yorker was his level of service and honesty. He always went the extra mile and then some. He and his assistant spent over 3 weeks in a small home, never rushing the process or a procedure. Phone calls, of which there were many, were typically 30 minutes long, with every detail thoroughly gone over. He gave many extras – checking the roof, checking the attic, replacing the subfloor, checking this and checking that, often traveling and shopping for things needed that were not part of our contractual agreement. To this day, I still call Art in Ohio for advice on various aspects of the home rehab project.

    All told, it was clear from the start that Art was not a native New Yorker. He started the job with a small deposit, willing to wait for an insurance settlement – in our case, he was only paid 4 months after his work was completed. Sadly, many of his other clients became greedy after insurance settlements and have contested his charges for work completed as per contract. Poor Art, now back in Ohio, has had to resort to expensive NYC legal counsel and is still attempting to collect his fees for many large jobs completed some time ago. I was very disappointed to find that the spirit of the swindler was alive and well, not just on the streets of the city, but like Sandy’s sewage, had permeated the walls of Homeowners Too :(

  • No Pane at All

    On July 29, 2009, I wrote Urban Coral Atoll about auto break-ins on the streets of New York City, with the telltale signs of shards of glass on the street. Yesterday, however, while exploring Gowanus, Brooklyn, I spotted a break-in where detective work was unnecessary. The car itself was still parked at the scene of the crime. Not one but TWO windows were completely smashed in broad daylight on a beautiful, sunny spring day.
    The auto was parked in front of Statewide Fireproof Door at 131 3rd Street – a moderately busy through street, even on a Sunday. The license plates were from New Jersey. The out-of-towners had yet to return and find themselves a nice cleaning job along with a breezy ride home and a repair job. And to learn the hard way, as every New Yorker knows, that to a thief, performing a Glass Act is No Pane at All :)

  • Self-Service, Part 2

    Does It Have to Be Pirelli?  (see Part 1 here)

    It was 1984 and my first trip to Europe. I arrived in Frankfurt, Germany. I was examining everything carefully, to see if in fact the attention to detail, precision, and quality was in keeping with the country’s mythic standards. It appeared to be. The airport was slick as could be and my eye was drawn to the flooring – a studded rubber material. I had seen its application in small areas in New York City, like elevator floors, but never such a large area as an entire airport. The reason was simple – this was Pirelli rubber tile, and it was rather expensive at the time to cover such a large area. But this was Germany, where the standard for manufacture was very high and, often, cost was not the dominant factor in choosing materials or methods – quality was. I subsequently learned that Pirelli tile had a tremendous reputation for durability. It was guaranteed for 10 years, even in high-traffic applications. Now, I really wanted to use it somehow, but where?

    In 1991, I moved my business to its current location in SoHo. Here, I wanted to create a badly needed showroom, which I did not have at my previous older location. I wanted the quality of materials going into the showroom to reflect the quality of our product line. I hired my best friend, a cabinetmaker, to do all the woodwork. We used baltic birch plywood for cabinetry. I insisted on solid brass screws to assemble – softer and more prone to stripping, my friend relented, seeing that I was steadfast in my obsession.

    I needed an area for ball bouncing. The bouncing of balls is a subset of the juggling world, and to test balls properly, a hard, even surface is needed. A wood floor does not typically have the uniformity or mass for best performance – stone does. So, my carpenter and I decided to design a station specifically for bouncing of silicone rubber balls. I researched for weeks, even calling graveyards in New England, to get an affordable price for a small slab of solid granite 4 inches thick. I also needed a good surface on the wood platform for standing. At last, I had an excuse to use Pirelli tile – it seemed perfect.

    Procuring a small number of these tiles, however, was not easy. Vendors in the city were selling by the box, and I only needed a handful of loose tiles. I found a dealer who said that he could provide such, however, once there, it was clear that I was going to be persuaded to buy tiles the salesman wanted to sell, not the Pirelli I had traveled to buy. It became the classic scene of self-service I had seen so many times, common in the world of sales with upselliing, cross-selling, and bait-and-switch.

    I was, however, a bit older and wiser since my Juki ordeal, and I was prepared with the proper response to the question I knew was coming. The salesman, frustrated that he did not have the selection of tiles I wanted, asked, “Does it have to be Pirelli?” To which I answered smugly, “No. It does not have to be Pirelli. But that’s what I want.” It was an effective silencing of a New York City salesman. I purchased a small number of gray tiles.

    My carpenter and I completed the ball bouncing platform, trimming the edges with solid brass rails. My carpenter, knowing me quite well, indulged my every whim, no matter how “unnecessary.” He knew better now that I should never be questioned why I needed baltic birch or brass screws. I was paying him, and it was his job to service the customer. When I had returned to the showroom and told him the ordeal it had been to get the particular tiles I wanted, he knew not to ask, Does It Have to be Pirelli? :)

    Related Posts: Do the Right Thing 2, Do the Right Thing, War Against Disservice, Released from Captivity

  • Self-Service, Part 1

    Does It Have to be a Juki?

    You know the scene, I am sure. You are in a store and can’t find something. You look for a salesperson. Finally, you find a GROUP of sales people, deeply engaged in conversation. Perhaps one of them even sees you and that you clearly need help. Apparently, however, their conversation is more important than helping you.

    It’s a form of customer service perhaps better called SELF SERVICE, but not the type of self-service that many of us like, where money can be saved and the check out process expedited. This type of self-service is self-serving.
    This type of self-service plays out in many ways, but the underlying operative is always the same – placing the needs of the business or salesperson ahead of the customer. Selling you what they have, even if it is something you don’t want or need. Upselling.

    In New York City, purchasing goods from suppliers to the trade often has its own flavor – one that I hate the taste of. It’s quite simple and goes something like this:
    You enter a business establishment knowing exactly what you want. It may be goods you have purchased for years. However, asking for what you want is followed by a question, something like – what are you making? This may seem extra helpful, trying to understand your needs, etc. But it’s not. Their question is really code for: How can I sell this person something I have rather than what they want. Infuriating if you know what you need. If you persist and are singular in your demand, a vendor will often resort to the more direct: Does it have to be ______ ?

    In the 1980s, I was shopping for a commercial sewing machine. Every sewing factory I had been in was filled with Juki sewing machines – the industrial workhorse of the garment industry. Everyone I spoke to said that the Juki was the machine to get. So, I went to the sewing machine district – two city blocks in Manhattan (25th and 26th Street between 6th and 7th avenues) known for its innumerable dealers of industrial sewing machine dealers, parts suppliers, and service establishments. I recall an exchange with one dealer who apparently was frustrated with my insistence on Juki, which he either did not have or perhaps he did have but had something else he chose to unload on me. I should have seen his response coming when I asked for a Juki: “Does it have to be a Juki?” he said in a thick New York accent.
    Had I been more experienced, wiser, and BLUNT, I would have told him, “No. It does not HAVE to be a Juki. But that is what I want. I’m the customer. Are you here to serve me or yourself?” I did remain steadfast and found a Juki. I never used it much and sold it some years later.

    Recently, while purchasing goods on 39th Street in the Garment District, I spotted the machine in today’s photo. So perfect, a Juki sitting alone on the street beckoning me. “Come on,” it was saying. “Take a photo. You already have the story.” Yes, I had no choice. Because there was a second part to the story too, one that does not end with Does it Have to Be a Juki? :)

    Related Posts: Do the Right Thing 2, Do the Right Thing, War Against Disservice

  • I’ll Take Care of You

    Have you been in a restaurant where any special request, no matter how small, is met with hesitation or a negative? And where it is particularly irritating because you know that your request can be easily met? Don’t you already have plenty to do and worry about? When you are a customer of a service establishment, shouldn’t they shoulder the burden, troubles, and responsibilities? Why should you feel uneasy or worried that your needs and requests will go unmet and worse, that you may have to help solve the problem that you are paying them for? In short, why should you be doing their job?

    Early Saturday morning, I lay awake in bed and reflected on the unpleasant chore of going to have my car inspected. In New York City, something as simple as inspecting your automobile can be very troublesome. Often an appointment in advance is necessary, there are long waiting periods, or a service station is out of inspection stickers. Many times I have spent hours trying to get my car inspected, only to return home defeated, having to try again another day.

    I called Salerno Service Station and asked for Ryan, the general manager – a man who had forever changed my attitude towards the auto repair business and led me to write an extensive two-part story – Jacked. It was Ryan who had answered the phone. I asked if they could do an auto inspection that morning. He said, Don’t worry. Just come in. I’ll take care of you. That is when it hit me hard. He had given me the key to ultimate customer service when he said I’ll take care of you. It was the reason why Salerno had hundreds of five star reviews online.

    HE HAD SHIFTED THE RESPONSIBILITY FROM ME TO THEM. All of the responsibility. Completely. 100%.

    That was the key, because in that way and only that way can a customer fully relax while the service provider does their job. Even with good customer service, there is often a nagging worry that something may go wrong. In auto repair, so many things can and do go wrong – a bigger problem will be discovered, a part will be unavailable, there will be no time today for the repair, the cost will be too great, you will be cheated or lied to, you will be sold something you do not need, etc. But with great customer service, at a place like Salerno Service Station,  you will be insulated from any hassles servicing your car because they are taking care of you. You can relax. Like my first visit when I was told by Ryan to go have a nice breakfast at the Willburg Cafe while he took care of my muffler job.

    It is like the days of old, when people spoke of being in the doctor’s care. There was great comfort in those words because it meant that someone competent was going to take care of you. People love to be taken care of. This complete taking over of responsibility from the customer or patient is characteristic of the Italian culture and their approach to service. Now I saw how it was at the core of the No Problema attitude that I wrote about.

    Over many decades of owning a car in the city, I have grown to despise the auto inspection ordeal. However, now, for the first time in my life, in the hands of Ryan and the Avallone family, Mario and Salvatore, I actually looked forward to this year’s inspection. In a harsh environment like New York City where comforts have to be actively sought out, there are no sweeter words than I’ll Take Care of You :)

  • Arson

    On August 30, 2011, I confessed to starting a fire as a young boy. I had been playing with a friend in a vacant lot across from my home. My friend encouraged and cajoled me to make those flames grow until the fire was beyond our control. We ran, lest we get implicated. I was terrified of the consequences of both the fire itself and, as we liked to say at the time, “getting killed” by my parents.
    A firetruck appeared, and I watched the small blaze get extinguished from the porch of my home with my unsuspecting mother. It was my first and last involvement with setting fires and was a lesson learned, fortunately at no one’s expense, less a few minutes’ time of a handful of firefighters.
    In my business, I manufacture and sell fire props to performers. Unlike my boyish recklessness, however, the professionals I have known, such as Chris Flambeaux, take fire seriously and understand the dangers and responsibilities. They are accountable and answer to fire marshals and theater regulations.

    Yesterday evening, at 7:49PM, I was called by one of my staff. An enormous fire was in progress only a short distance from our office. It was not clear that the fire would pose any danger to the building where my business was located, so, I made my way back to my office’s neighborhood. A fire had been started at 41 Spring Street in NoLita. From the New York Times:

    After arguing with the mother of his child, a man set a fire in the second-floor hallway of his Manhattan apartment building on Thursday night, igniting a rapidly spreading, five-alarm blaze that killed one person and injured at least nine, the authorities said.

    It took nearly 200 firefighters two and a half hours to bring the fire under control, fire officials said; the building has a Pinkberry shop on the ground floor and apartments above.
    “We had an extraordinary amount of fire,” said James Esposito, chief of operations for the Fire Department. It burned upward to the roof, destroying the interior staircases, so firefighters had to use fire escapes and ladders.

    “It was an extremely intense operation,” Chief Esposito said. “The fire encompassed all the walls, all the floors,” he said. “We have a partial collapse inside the building right now. It’s essentially destroyed.”

    The 45-year old suspect was arrested and is now in custody. Arson.

  • Closed Forever

    Change is typically incremental, even radical change. But often, there is that moment or day that PUNCTUATES a transformation. An unmistakable, inarguable sign that times have changed by technology. I saw the long, slow shift from vinyl to CD. And one day, the change was complete – the vinyl section in Tower Records was closed completely, supplanted by music CDs.
    Recently in my business, we made the decision to give away our entire inventory of VHS tapes. The decision to divorce ourselves completely, even from viewing legacy video tapes, was also made. We will be uninstalling our video monitor and VHS tape player. DVDs are threatened as well. We recently converted all of our video media to electronic form and uploaded them to a touch screen computer. This showroom kiosk now replaces monitor, VHS tape player, and DVD player.

    The future of printed books is unclear. Ebooks have been heralded for eons, but print continues to live on. The adoption of electronic books over print is a much greater hurdle – unlike video, where the form of delivery media is not so consequential, print is tactile and the difference between paper and electronic imaging is still huge for most individuals. Ultimately, I believe technology will force its hand as costs, storage, and distribution of electronic media win easily over paper.
    Bookstores have closed here and there. At one time, 8th Street in Greenwich Village was a virtual mecca for book lovers, with numerous bookstores, befitting its literary and bohemian roots. Many have anguished over the encroachment of the large chains into New York City, particularly Barnes and Noble. Personally, although I understand the sentiment, I always welcome a bookstore. I also have a sentimental attachment to Barnes and Noble, as I wrote about in World of Waiting.

    It had been announced that the Barnes and Noble at 8th Street and 6th Avenue would close. The store is an anchor for the block – it occupies the corner and the entire two-story structure. It has had numerous incarnations. In the 1960s-70s, it was a popular late night watering hole and home to Nathan’s and an Orange Julius. I paid little mind to the store closing announcement, as many things can be said and stays of execution are common in business. However, last night en route home, the death knell tolled again. The windows were papered and a sign on the door said it all. Closed Forever.

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