Decades-old Skyview biz falls victim to rent hike

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As the final days of March slipped by, one of the last original businesses in Skyview Shopping Center reluctantly closed its doors. For good.

Riverdale Stationery & Candy fought to stay in its Riverdale Avenue home, but a drastic rent increase combined with fewer customers was too steep a challenge.

“We’d been trying to negotiate for six months, but the management company won’t budge,” said Bob Patel, who bought the stationery shop in 2002. “Our customers wrote them letters and emails trying to save the business. We even had Councilman (Andrew) Cohen try talking to them, but they wouldn’t change their minds.”

Rent had more than doubled over the last 17 years. At the same time, technology changed daily life so much — especially since the store first opened in 1963 — few people bought cards or stationery anymore.

Still, before the rent increase, there was just enough business to keep the lights on and pay two employees.

“I was making a living,” Patel said. “Not a lot, but it covered expenses.”

KF Braun Management, the aging shopping center’s landlord, suddenly increased the shop’s rent by 50 percent. The rental agent told Patel he had to pay what the space was worth and wouldn’t hear any consternation about what it would mean for the business’s health.

And so Patel tried to keep the doors open despite the higher rent. When the margins grew too thin, he faced facts.

“We tried,” Patel said, “but in business, you can’t just keep losing money.”

Across the street at Brown’s Jewelers, Susie Gallo came to grips with the reality of another long-time Riverdale Avenue business gone.

“They’re closed now. That just hit me today,” she said, shaking her head. “I used to go over there when I needed to pick up a few things. The people who worked there were so nice.”

A Riverdale resident of 29 years, Gallo said the little shopping district used to be the hub of local activity. Before e-commerce put a world of merchandise at a shopper’s fingertips, they were the family businesses that kept suburban residents fed and clothed. But as technology became more popular, Gallo said she watched the little shops in this small district come and go, but a few — like the stationery store — held out.

“There’s always been change here,” Gallo said, “but some of these stores have been here through all of it.”

A letter taped to the door of Riverdale Stationery’s empty storefront thanked loyal customers for years of patronage. It was a heartfelt message to those who didn’t get a personal goodbye.

“Most of the people in the neighborhood knew we were closing,” Patel said. “We put up signs and started telling people a couple of months ago.”

Many of his customers came to the store as children back when the Gardner family ran the place, tottling behind parents, themselves on a mission to buy candy, cigarettes and newspapers. That generation of customers brought their kids there, who then grew up bringing their own children in during afternoon errands.

Even the store’s sign, for however long it remains up, recalls a time before businesses needed neon lights and slick email marketing to be successful. When it opened, Gardner’s Stationery was a typical little New York store. Stuffed animals and balloons decorated the front windows. The left side of the store was all newspapers and magazines, with a little rack of romance novels.

One aisle contained school supplies, wrapping paper and greeting cards. Another aisle held cheap toys — dolls, Matchbox cars and the pink rubber high-bounce balls kids played handball with on the street. And always present were the shelves of useless but pretty tchotchkes that would do for a gift in a pinch.

With the stationery store gone, the community has lost a piece of its old charm, Riverdale Pharmacy owner Marty Burinescu said. His is the last remaining original store from when Skyview opened in the ‘60s.

“It’s sad when you see a business like that closing down,” he said. “It’s sad because we’re little neighborhood stores, little mom-and-pop operations that used to be a family business. It used to be somebody’s livelihood.”

He bought the pharmacy in 1987, back when the shopping center looked very different.

“When I moved in, there was a Fotomat booth on one end of the shopping center, and the spot now occupied by the walk-in clinic was a delicatessen,” Burinescu said. “At the other end was the two-screen movie theater. They used to have two kinds of popcorn: salted and unsalted for the older folks around there who’d come to watch movies.”

Gone is Riverdale Greentree restaurant, Daitch Shopwell grocery store, and even the old McDonald’s. The original shopping center tenants turned off their lights one by one as the decades wore on.

“The landlord has been very decent and fair to us,” Burinescu said. With business steady, he hopes the pharmacy will remain the old kid on the block for years to come.

KF Braun’s website lists the 1,800-square-foot space the stationery store vacated for $9,000 a month. Mendy Braun, the shopping center’s managing agent, did not return calls for comment.

The closure is troubling to business owners nearby.

“The North Riverdale Merchant and Business Association is watching the closures of local businesses with tremendous concern,” the group’s spokesman, Christopher Rizzo, said in an email. “This trend must be addressed.”

While he didn’t comment specifically about conditions at Skyview at this time, Rizzo wrote the association believes problems on Riverdale Avenue are driving closures both in and outside the shopping center. Con Edison’s prolonged road construction is just the latest headache.

“Lack of city investment in traffic and pedestrian safety, deteriorating sidewalks, and lack of private investment in properties is making Riverdale Avenue a less attractive and welcoming place to shop and do business,” Rizzo said.

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