March 1, 2024

A Small-Business Barometer in Astoria

The fishmonger, Baldasarre Marino, and then a son, a grandson and a great-grandson — all named Charles — kept the market alive through the Great Depression, the 1970s fiscal crisis and the blackout of 2006. But the great recession proved to be too much, and the market closed in July, suffering the fate of some neighboring small businesses, like a pub run by a man from Ireland and a carpet store owned by a man from Greece.

“There’s no insurance against a bad economy,” said Charlie Marino, a great-grandson of the fish market’s founder.

But along with endings there have been beginnings. Last month, an eyewear shop opened in a spot where rolls of carpets were once stacked. Three doors from the fish market, a Louisiana-style restaurant is set to open soon, while across the street, a shuttered lounge has resurfaced as a Latin restaurant.

And so this small commercial stretch — eight blocks of 30th Avenue, bracketed by 31st Street and Steinway Street — is a microcosm of how small businesses are faring as the economy flails.

A street that has long been an incubator of financial hopes and aspirations for waves of immigrants has fallen victim to high rents and disappearing customers. But this strip also has a resilient streak, a history of newcomers arriving with an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to work hard and take a chance.

Wall Street may be the economic lifeblood of New York City, but it is small businesses, places with 100 workers or less, that are the city’s backbone, accounting for 98 percent of its roughly 233,000 companies, according to the state’s Department of Labor.

Even at the height of the recession in 2008, small businesses provided nearly half of all private-sector jobs available in the city, more than they did in 1990, a study to be released by the Center for an Urban Future, a research institute, found. “Small businesses are the only ones that have been taking chances,” said Jonathan Bowles, the center’s director.

Still, the struggles of neighborhood businesses are underscored by persistently high retail vacancy rates. Nowhere is the problem more pronounced than in Queens, which logged a vacancy rate of 13 percent in the third quarter of this year, the highest in the city, according to Marcus Millichap, a national brokerage firm. Manhattan had the lowest vacancy rate, about 7 percent. In the third quarter two years ago, the vacancy rates were 4 percent for Queens and 2.8 percent for Manhattan.

A survey this summer by Representative Anthony D. Weiner painted a dismal picture in several shopping districts in Queens, finding more than one in 5 stores closed along a busy stretch of Jamaica Avenue that runs through Richmond Hill and Woodhaven, and one in 10 stores closed in Glendale. On Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park, almost 20 percent of storefronts were closed.

“This is more than an economic indicator,” Mr. Weiner, a Democrat who represents parts of Queens and Brooklyn, said in an interview. “It’s a sort of psychic barometer of a community.”

In Astoria, about 30 mom-and-pop stores along 30th Avenue have gone out of business in the past two years, in what has been of the most unforgiving financial times for a strip that has experienced booms and busts along with successive waves of immigrants.

Greeks and Italians arrived at the turn of the last century and opened butcher shops and salumerias that sold prosciutto, pancetta and racks of lamb.

Croatians followed, and then Czechs and other Eastern Europeans, who favored travel agencies and hair salons. More recently, Brazilians opened restaurants, and Arabs started jewelry stores. Now, in a reckless gamble or an act of faith, a fresh crop of business owners is trying to make it on the avenue.

For Annie Zhu, 31, and Michelle Ho, 35, friends and partners in the optical shop, Vision Essential, failure would probably mean having to go back to working for someone else.

For Al Lau, 39, and his wife, Michele Addeo, 38, the owners of the Louisiana-style restaurant, Sugarfreak, it would probably mean losing everything they have.

Mr. Lau and Ms. Addeo signed the lease on the 1,000-square-foot space a year ago and have been paying rent ever since, though their landlord agreed to charge them $3,000 a month, half of what they will be paying once the restaurant opens. The discount is welcome, but it does little to lessen their problems.

The couple applied for small-business loans, but banks turned them down, saying that restaurants were too risky, Mr. Lau said.

They have run through their savings — Mr. Lau is a lawyer and Ms. Addeo is a physical therapist — and hit the limit on their credit cards to finance their restaurant, which is not yet finished. They spent $150,000 on kitchen equipment and $25,000 on lawyers after a neighborhood group opposed their application for a liquor license. (The restaurant has been granted a provisional license.)

A previous version of this article misspelled the last names of Michele Addeo and Al Lau. The article has been revised to reflect the correction.

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