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Suffering On Jewish Main Street

Suffering On Jewish Main Street

Inside a Kew Gardens Hills spa that pampers its customers with manicures and facials, only a few women are having their nails done this morning. “Customers are not coming as often,” says the owner, a middle-aged woman with a Russian accent, declining to give her name. A year ago, she says, “there was always a waiting line.”

A few doors away, inside a remodeling business that repairs and renovates homes, a single customer is speaking with the owner this morning, and the lights are turned low to save electricity. It’s like this “all the time” in recent months, says Marianna Niyazova, an interior decorator at the firm, Hope Expo. “We tried to use not so much air conditioning this summer.”

Further down the street outside Wasserman’s grocery store, George, a beggar well known to Jewish shoppers, holds a nearly empty cup. “This year was the worst,” says 40ish George, who supplements his disability payments with the kindness of passers-by. An average day’s take is about $100, half of last year’s, he says.

In the wake of the year-long mortgage and credit crisis that has brought the U.S. economy into a deep recession and led Congress last week to pass a $700 billion bailout package designed to rescue threatened financial institutions and overhaul the nation’s financial regulatory system, the public focus is on Wall Street, on the investment houses and banks facing bankruptcy and insolvency.

Away from Wall Street, on the country’s Main Street, the businesses that are juggling tight credit and decreased income are also suffering. Nationwide, consumer spending is down, reflecting a lack of confidence in a short-term recovery.

On one local Jewish Main Street — in this case, a half-mile-long stretch along Main Street in Kew Gardens Hills, a Queens neighborhood with a major Orthodox Jewish population — the signs of recession were evident last Friday morning. While the time between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is normally a busy period for shoppers stocking up for Shabbat, the pre-fast meal and the subsequent Sukkot holiday, this year there are no crowds on Main Street.

Colbeh, an upscale glatt kosher restaurant, is nearly empty at lunchtime. The Jewish bookstores and Judaica shops and florist shops and clothing stores have fewer than normal customers.
“It’s really bad,” says Rachel Rosenfeld, manager of Moshe G n’I bakery. She has cut employees’ hours in recent months, she says.

Customers who are buying are buying less.
“Instead of a leather machzor [High Holy Days prayer book], they will buy a regular, non-leather machzor,” says Yakov Gliss, manager of Safra Judaica. “Instead of an embroidered tallis, they will buy a standard tallis.”

One part of Sara Jamaica’s business is up, Glass says — a growing number of people are bringing in their mezuzah scrolls for checking. A defect in the Hebrew writing is considered, in traditional circles, an inauspicious sign.

Along Main Street this morning, the sidewalks are, in fact, empty.
“When you look around, it seems that fewer people are out shopping,” says Rebecca Wittert, a lifelong resident of the area. “I don’t see people in droves buying things.

“You have to buy food for yom tov,” she says, “but people aren’t going overboard.”

Wittert, a researcher, points to a few stores along Main Street, on the Jewish shopping area that flanks Jewel Avenue, that have gone out of business during the last year. She tells about friends who have put off making major purchases. “Steadily, everything has creeped up in price. People are worried. People are very cautious.” She cites her own family. “We think three times about bringing in a suit to the cleaners.”

And she mentions the fashions she noticed in shul on Rosh HaShanah this year. “People were not dressing up for yom tov.No new outfits, as in past years. “People were being cautious.”

A walk along Main Street brings stories from storeowners about fewer purchases of expensive holiday gifts, about fewer coins dropped in charity pushkes, about fewer clothes brought in for tailoring, and about more requests for grocery-store credit. Owners talk about dropping prices or offering other incentives to attract customers.

“Everyone has the same problem,” says the owner of a liquor store that carries a wide selection of kosher wines and liquors. This holiday season, he says, Jewish customers are buying Israeli brands instead of the more-pricey, once-popular California varieties. The Israeli wines are now prominently displayed at the front of the store.

“I see people dazed. They’re walking around dazed,” says the owner of a popular kosher pizza shop. Like many people approached by The Jewish Week, he asks that his name not be used.

His shop is busy — but not as busy as usual, he says. “People still have to eat kosher.” Customers who would come in several times a week, he says, now show up less frequently. He says business is suffering more at the nearby, high-end kosher restaurants. “Those guys are hurting more than I am.”
Who’s hurting on Main Street? The gift shops and boutiques that specialize in luxury or discretionary items.

Who’s doing OK? Predictably, the discount stores that sell such things as toys and household items at cheap prices. Also, predictably, the grocery stores that sell staples for daily use and for the holidays. And, surprisingly, the chocolate stores and Max & Mina’s ice cream store, which deal in so-called comfort foods. And also a sukkah supplier.

“People have to shop” — and eat — “no matter what,” says Yehuda Ganchrow, assistant manager of Supersol, a large supermarket at one end of Main Street’s kosher shopping area. “We haven’t seen any effect” of the economic downturn. “Food is one of the things that withstand any change in the economy.”

“I didn’t feel a drastic change,” says Susan Hod, owner of Kandi Kastle, whose shelves hold a wide selection of sweets. “People are still buying.” Especially chocolates.

Ice cream is as popular as ever — probably more so, during tense times — at Max & Mina’s, an iconic store with an international reputation for its quirky (see “Lox” or “Corn on the cob”) and standard flavors, says owner Bruce Becker. Both the walk-in business and the catering for simchas and other events are doing well. “People are still buying. We have not suffered. Chocolate flavors — it’s the ultimate comfort food – is especially popular,” Becker says. “We’ve been running low on chocolate.”

At Sukkah Depot, across Main Street from Supersol, business is still brick for pre-fab sukkot.

“Everything is normal,” says Eitan Kwiat, manager of the business that has eight street-front locations in New York City and sells its modular huts at several other locations in the area. “It’s all over the place, Baruch Hashem,” Kwiat says — “when someone needs a sukkah, they need a sukkah.

“Maybe people will go for the cheaper sukkahs,” Kwiat says he thought before this year’s sukkah-buying season. Not so. Sales of the more-expensive makes of sukkah, which range into the several hundreds, or thousands of dollars, are as high as in past years. “No different.”

Symbolically, during the holiday season when the focus is on one’s spiritual cleansing, business is flourishing, as usual, at David’s Cleaners. Pre-yom tov cleanings of suits and dresses are still part of his customers’ rituals, says owner David Hod.

“Everything is good,” Hod says. “We thank God. People are still cleaning.”

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