Why have some retail establishments not only escaped the hungry jaws of the worst recession since the depression, but also flourished in it? What are they selling? And why are people buying?
This past year, after small businesses began disappearing on every block in my Upper East Side neighborhood, I found myself peering through store windows to see how the survivors were coping. In many stores the unoccupied staff had nothing better to do than peer back at me. Lounging in empty customer seats in hair salons, stylists flipped listlessly through magazines or played games on their cells. At the nearby travel agency, first three, than four of the seven desks went empty. Stationed at their front doors, store proprietors contemplated the passing scene, longing perhaps for stage hooks to drag in some trade.
As I made my daily rounds through the Eighties and Nineties, I noticed that, among smaller storefronts, three establishments appeared consistently busy. All were in the food biz. The busiest of these, with long lines snaking out two doors at mealtime, was the 86th Street Papaya King. No mystery there. Their hot dogs – which are the only ones I ever eat – are delicious. Even Anthony Bourdain sang their juicy praises In a TV show when he claimed Papaya King’s hot dogs were the one attraction that could lure him uptown from his beloved downtown hangouts. Their hot dogs are also reasonably priced. Combine this with their freshly squeezed fruit drinks and you have a winnah.
Also flourishing was Starbucks. Four of their branches (maybe even more) dot my neighborhood and they are always jumping. And why not – their coffee is tops, their double chocolate brownies spin my endorphins into nirvana land, and with free Wi-Fi, they’re laptop friendly. Plus, rare in New York, customers are never rushed to clear out and make room for new wallets. Laptoppers can sit there for hours in blissful computer reveries.
Another humming branch store in my strictly informal survey was Crumbs Bake Shop on upper Lexington Avenue. An inviting, friendly looking establishment with a white tin ceiling and old-fashioned, hanging lamps, it advertises its’ cupcakes as handmade with love. They come in three sizes: bite size, classic and a super duper biggie for serious cupcake aficionados. Along with a patient take-out crowd, contented looking kids and Moms share their sweet treats at the window counter.
All three retail establishments have distinctive personalities. Like successful businesses in every field, their style and products are not interchangeable with other businesses. Fresh, yummy and soul satisfying, their affordable treats lighten up the recession’s shadows.