Crossing the invisible border of Bushwick, Brooklyn, a dense shopping district of small stores stretches east down Myrtle Avenue through working class Ridgewood, Queens. In this neighborhood of immigrants, the most recent arriving from Eastern Europe and Latin America, there’s an empty storefront and at least one deep discount store on every block.
Theodore Renz, President of the Myrtle Avenue Business Improvement District, hopes business will boom, but he is worried. Renz believes this will be the worst holiday shopping season in awhile because of the poor shape of the economy.
“Currently, we have the most rental vacancies we’ve had in 12 years and Myrtle Avenue has become increasingly empty over the past 6 months,” Renz said.
The oldest organization of its kind in Queens, the Myrtle Avenue BID has tried to attract retailers and shoppers to the area for the past 20 years. The strip boasts a mix of small businesses from dry cleaners to independent electronics retailers to 99-cent shops. But even with new stores renting space along Myrtle Avenue, Retailers just can’t keep their doors open and Renz said he is afraid it will only get worse.
But not all the retailers are worried.
Zoubir Benfquih owns Closeout Heaven, one of the newest additions to the 20-plus discount stores that crowd along ten blocks of Myrtle Avenue. Closeout Heaven exclusively sells closeout products from Costco – food, appliances, and clothing – and everything is half the price Costco would charge.
So far, the downturn in the economy hasn’t made Benfquih too worried.
“Customers are coming to save a buck,” Benfquih said. “People who live and work in the neighborhood are shopping here. They know when we have our deliveries, twice a week, and always come to see what’s available.”
But Benfquih has noticed a recent change in his regular customers’ shopping habits.
“People still look, but they’re scared, they don’t know what’s going to happen,” Benfquih said. “Instead of spending $100, they spend $30 or $40.”
This makes a difference to Benfquih’s bottom line, although he’s confident that business will go on as usual.
The most popular items at Closeout Heaven are food products like canned soup and soda and cereal, which often sell out soon after delivery from Costco. Benfquih pointed out that people are shopping at his store because they need to save money on the basics. The owners of neighboring discount stores agree.
“These days, there are very low income people in this neighborhood, who often only have enough money for food and rent,” Maurice Derzie said, eyeing his empty store, which is two blocks away from Closeout Heaven.
Derzie’s store, Alan Discount sells adults’ clothing and kitchen goods like pots, pans and dishtowels. He wondered whether rising rents combined with a failing economy will finally put him out of business. Derzie has been operating Alan Discount at the same location for over 30 years, since emigrating from Lebanon in 1972.
In contrast, Benfquih opened for business on Myrtle Avenue last year, expanding his small operation from an original Closeout Heaven store that he’s run for the past 10 years in Bayside,Through a friend who manages a convenience store in Ridgewood, he heard about a vacant storefront with reasonable rent in the neighborhood. Benfquih decided it was time for Closeout Heaven to grow. Now he commutes every day from Staten Island to each of his two shops, ending the day in Ridgewood.
Benfquih and his cousin, who’s one of his four employees, agree that opening the new store was a good idea despite the struggling economy and fears about how government will handle it. Even if business was better when they first moved to Ridgewood, it remains steady enough, with the community providing a stream of regular customers that Benfquih believes will support Closeout Heaven no matter what happens on Wall Street.
“If there is a $700 billion bailout, the government needs to regulate it,” Benfquih said. “People on Wall Street took millions for themselves. Maybe if the government regulates what they’re doing now, things will get better for everyone.”