When Lisa Polanski first opened her tightly packed shoe and clothing emporium on Seventh Avenue between Carroll and President streets, the rent was only $250 per month. But that was back in 1975 before Park Slope was, well, Park Slope.
Since then Seventh Avenue storefront prices have soared with landlords asking—and getting—anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000/per month, which, rumor has it, Starbucks pays for their prime Slope location.
That said, there are more than 15 empty storefronts on the avenue at the moment, an alarming statistic for Slopers who form a close attachment to their local stores and the people who work there. Many fear that the only businesses that can stay in business are cell phone stores, real estate firms and national chains.
Just this week, Video Forum, a video rental shop on Seventh Avenue between Garfield and Carroll streets, announced that that they will be closing at the end of March after 15 years in business. According to Sean O’Brien, who has worked at the shop for five years, sales have gone down precipitously in the last few months.
“We saw it coming. The amount of money coming in dropped due to Netflix streaming video. There were just not as many customers coming in,” he told me.
According to O’Brien, the store’s lease was up and the owner and landlord were able to work out a deal. But the owner, who recently closed his stationery store on Flatbush Avenue (and Video Edge, another rental store, also on Flatbush) made the decision to close anyway.
“He’s done,” O’Brien told me.
Locals reacted with shock and sadness. “They rented the last DVD on Wednesday and are selling their entire stock. What a huge loss for our neighborhood,” said Joe Rydell, a local psychotherapist.
Standing in Lisa Polanski’s namesake shop just a block away, I got a master class in what it takes to stay in business on Seventh Avenue for 35 years.
“That color is my favorite color,” the chic Polanski, told a tween who was trying on hot pink Converse sneakers. She turned to another customer, a woman in her thirties, who was considering a pair of Bogs rain and snow boots.
“One of my customers vacationed in the Arctic at Christmas and she wore those boots,” she said.
It is this ability to multi-task combined with a tireless attention to the needs of her customers that has made Polanski a popular destination for Park Slope shoe and clothing shoppers.
“I carry unusual stuff. Things you won’t see at the Gap or Macy’s,” she told me of her wide-ranging stock, which includes Doc Martins, cut-rate designer shoes, comfortable skirts and dresses, tutus, Dorothy glitter shoes and fleece jackets.
“Our stock changes constantly and we have what people want,” she told me as adults and children wandered in and out of her crowded shop. “You have to like talking to people. This is a service business and you have to be nice to everyone—including cranky people.”
Trained at Pratt Institute as an art therapist and sculptor, Polanski said she knew nothing about business when she opened her shop. “I was working at a clog shop in Manhattan and I said to myself, ‘I can do this,’” she said.
To those thinking of opening a store on Seventh Avenue (or anywhere else) she advises “spend time in the field to find out if you like it. Having a shop is very labor intensive. It looks like fun but it’s about unpacking cartons, being on your feet, dealing with difficult customer, tagging, cleaning. It’s insane.”
Asked for the secret to her shop’s longevity: “We’re here so long because we like our customers. And it’s easy to treat them well.”
Clearly, though, that’s not all it takes to stay in business on Seventh Avenue. The young employees at Video Forum are exceedingly friendly and always willing to engage a customer in a discussion about a new release, an esoteric director or a TV series. It is that sense of community and the face-to-face interaction one finds in a local video store or book shop that is lost when you stream videos straight to your television set via Netflix or buy your books on Amazon.
So what lies ahead for Seventh Avenue? Locals say they want small, independent shops but are they really willing to stop shopping the deals at Netflix, Amazon, Fresh Direct, The Gap and Target and buy their goods locally?
So how are small businesses to stay in businesses when landlords want top dollar and consumers want variety and savings as well?
If Park Slope wants to live up to its reputation as a forward thinking neighborhood, locals need to create a public forum, much like a permanent version of the Park Slope Civic Council’s c. We need somewhere that landlords, local business people, city officials and consumers can get together to do some hard thinking about how to create a sustainable independent local business community that serves the needs of those who live and do business here.