Monday, March 8, 2010

in the Times yesterday! wattup.

Not Your Banks’ Bailouts: Stores Too Loved to Fail

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

BELOVED Ray Alvarez, owner of Ray's Candy Store in the East Village, is deeply in debt, and young people are trying to help.

The bike store had become a wine bar. The new apartments were breathtakingly expensive. Then kids from the neighborhood formed a protective guard around a gnarly old candy store on Avenue A and Seventh Street in Manhattan.

For the last month, a group of high school and college students has been running volunteer deliveries on Saturday nights for Ray’s Candy Store, an all-night chapel of East Village life packed with fond, fervent and freakish memories, but not exactly jammed with customers. With their deliveries — need an egg cream and Belgian fries at 3 a.m.? — the kids hope to drum up business for Ray’s until the spring, when more people are walking the streets.

How do the delivery teams get around? “Skateboards,” Arianna Gil, 16, said. “Scooters, bike and feet. All will be utilized.”

Already, friends and neighbors have run two fund-raisers to help the candy store’s owner, Ray Alvarez, pay thousands of dollars in overdue bills; another is planned for Monday night at the Theater for the New City.

In the age of bailouts, it turns out that not all rescue operations involve numbers ending in “illions.”

Last month, Bread Stuy, a coffee house on Lewis Avenue in Brooklyn, was padlocked by marshals because it owed back taxes; neighbors helped pay off a $10,000 penalty so it could reopen.

When the Pink Teacup, a soul-food fixture in the West Village for more than 50 years (“Take two pork chops at the Pink Teacup and call me in the morning,” the Newsday critic Sylvia Carter once advised) was collapsing late last year, its fans raised money through social media. Then the filmmaker Lawrence Page agreed to buy it, and he plans to reopen it this spring.

In Rockefeller Center, Jerry’s Barber Shop was about to close last month after 31 years when a customer — David Rubin, a real estate lawyer — volunteered to negotiate a better rent.

At the other end of the economic food chain, shares were sold last year to rescue the chronically in-hock Vox Pop Cafe, a coffeehouse-art gallery-bookshop on Cortelyou Road in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, making it into a collective.

Thanks to taxpayer-financed bailouts, big banks and insurance companies were spared the harshest judgment of the marketplace over the last 18 months, exempted under the doctrine of “too big to fail.”

On that scorecard, places like Bread Stuy and Vox Pop and Ray’s would be doomed. Banks in; egg creams out. But when someone has been running a little business for 37 years, as Mr. Alvarez has, he can build up a big head of social momentum.

One recent blustery night, Maria Musial stood behind the counter at Ray’s, where she has worked since arriving from Elk, Poland, in the early 1980s.

“When I came, he was nearly the only store on the block,” Ms. Musial said. “The squat people was here. Now it’s young customers, new people.”

A friend, Bozenna, chimed in.

“They don’t like egg creams,” Bozenna said.

In rallying people, some of Mr. Alvarez’s supporters have blamed his landlord, but the store’s problems are far more complicated than his monthly rent of $3,500.

“The landlord is not trying to throw him out,” said Bob Arihood, a resident of the area who has been working for the last year to untangle Mr. Alvarez’s chaotic financial life and who writes a blog called Neither More Nor Less. “Ray’s on a month-to-month arrangement. The landlord could have thrown him out any time he fell behind, but he doesn’t want to do that.”

Although he is 77 and paid Social Security taxes for decades, Mr. Alvarez has not yet drawn any benefits, because, he said, he immigrated from Turkey under a different name.

“They told him to go to a hearing,” Mr. Arihood said. “Ray didn’t go.” Mr. Alvarez said that students from Cardozo Law School were working on that problem. Then he recited an impressive catalog of debts. “The workers’ comp insurance is the worst,” he said, displaying a bill for $84,000 in back premiums.

Another pressing matter is the vat of boiling oil that he uses to fry potatoes, his best-selling product. The shop has no grease hood and an inadequate exhaust system. “The insurance company wants to cancel the policy,” said Barbara Chupa, the building manager. “But I’ve heard that Ray has someone willing to do the labor to put it in.”

The equipment, Mr. Alvarez said, would cost about $20,000.

His friends see injustice, not debt, and will fight. As the menu for the new delivery project says: “How could we sit idly while Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks slowly killed everything we cherished about our community?”

And there is a matter of loyalty to someone who was willing to cut kids a break on a plate of fries, said Arianna Gil: “He’s an icon of our childhood.”

1 comment:

Jill said...

You're learning to work the media like a pro!