By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — Beacon Paint & Hardware makes its money by selling screwdrivers, air conditioners and other home improvement supplies.
But, for the kids at P.S. 87, the store is known as home to Bru, the friendly black lab — and the place to get a free container of Play-Doh.
After 111 years on Amsterdam Avenue between West 77th and 78th streets, Beacon is an Upper West Side institution, known both for its selection of paints and its active role in the neighborhood.
As Upper West Siders worry increasingly about small merchants closing in their neighborhood, Beacon stands out as a family-owned mom and pop store that's thriving. A string of stores in the next block of Amsterdam Avenue have recently closed, but Beacon is going strong.
Co-owner Bruce Stark, 53, whose parents, brother and sister have all worked at the store, said the secret to Beacon's longevity is customer service — Yelp reviewers praise its knowledgeable staff.
But Stark, who lives on West 76th Street, and his brother Steve, who lives on West 88th, have also worked to make Beacon part of the fabric of the neighborhood. Their sister, Ellen Gabe, works as the store's bookkeeper and at the sales counter.
The store has helped sponsor local playgrounds and gardens, holds an annual charity walk and graffiti-cleaning event, and makes frequent donations to local schools. Bruce Stark says he and his family learn customers' names when they hand out free balloons to kids.
"It costs a few dollars, but it's for good causes," Stark said of his neighborhood donations. "I'm happy to be the guy that people go to. I'm proud of that."
Lisa Shlansky, a second grade teacher at P.S. 87, called Stark a "generous teddy bear" who most of her students know by name.
"I couldn't see living in this neighborhood and not having a place like Beacon Hardware," said Shlansky, who lives a few blocks from the store. "When you walk in, you feel like you're home."
Small stores like Beacon add flavor to Upper West Side streets, but they also build community, Shlanksy added. Beacon is an official "safe haven," which means kids can take shelter there if they feel unsafe, she said. Another nearby safe haven, the Shining Star diner, closed recently.
"A place like Duane Reade could not be a safe haven for children," Shlansky said. "You need mom and pop stores where kids can feel safe and everybody knows your name."
Stark has seen the Upper West Side change dramatically since his family bought Beacon in 1971. Back then, he stayed off side streets and generally walked in the middle of the road to avoid danger.
Beacon's neighbors in the early days were a Department of Sanitation depot and a hair salon where off-duty pimps liked to hang out, Stark said. "They were our nicest neighbors," Stark said. "They never had a cross word with anyone."
Today, there's a yoga place upstairs and an Italian restaurant next door.
Beacon once sold art supplies, but as rents went up, artists moved downtown, Stark said. Since then, the Upper West Side has attracted fewer singles who rent and more families that own property, which is good for the hardware business because families tend to fix up their homes, he said.
But as mom and pop businesses seem to close in greater numbers, locals worry about the impact on the neighborhood. Community Board 7 recently formed a working group to study the issue and come up with a list of policy recommendations.
Community Board 7 chair Mel Wymore said the group is looking at a range of ways to boost small merchants, from a possible iPhone app that can recommend neighborhood stores, to changing zoning laws so national banks can't take up as much streetscape.
"When (small businesses) get replaced by banks and large drug stores, the experience of the street is very different," Wymore said.
"It goes to the quality of life of living here, and the relationship you have with the people where you buy your goods. I know my dry cleaning guy, I know my bakery, and that makes a difference to me."