By Carla Zanoni
DNAinfo Reporter/ Producer
HARLEM — Tucked away on West 118th Street just off Frederick Douglass Boulevard is Lee Lee’s Baked Goods, a quaint bakery with a red and white awning, large windows framed by white lacey curtains, and an open door that invites passersby to take a peek at an array of cakes in yellow, white and cream.
At the counter sit the famous stars of the shop — buttery nuggets of chocolate and apricot rugelach made by owner and baker Alvin Lee Smalls.
Smalls, 68, makes everything by hand in the kitchen behind the display counter. He still charges 70 cents for each rugelach, even though others charge twice that amount.
Yet, for all of its charm, Smalls said he plans to close Lee Lee’s on May 31.
Location, location, location.
In many ways, the very thing that makes Lee Lee’s special contributed to its downfall. The shop is away from the bustle of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, which now includes a Starbucks, the French bakery Patisserie Des Ambassades, and the recently opened supermarket chain Best Yet Market, which has a bakery counter. Harlem’s star bakery Make My Cake is also nearby.
Smalls once sold his rugelach at Best Yet Market but said he and the family-run, Long Island-based chain have ended their business relationship.
So when a health clinic across the street that provides $4,000 in business to the bakery each month closed its doors in March, the tenuous business plan Smalls had constructed started coming apart. Smalls said he can’t hold on until a new medical center opens within the next year.
“We thought this year was going to be our year, but once they closed their doors, we were done,” he said of clinic’s closure. “A little money would help us stay open for the next few months.”
Cleveland Manly, a 58-year-old MTA conductor and longtime Harlem resident, lives three doors down from the bakery.
“I don’t even want to think of him closing,” he said while ordering rugelach, joking that the pastry is the “cheat food” for his diet.
Manly said neighborhood competition may play a part in Lee Lee’s closure, noting that the bakery could benefit from more advertising and marketing.
But Smalls’ grassroots approach does not include such strategies.
Manly recalled that Smalls had to be convinced to sell sandwiches and water to people who were walking home during the blackout of 2003 because he did not want to take advantage of people.
“He is a really laid-back guy who doesn’t like to ask for help,” Manly said. “But pride will keep you homeless.”
Smalls, a native of South Carolina who now lives in the Bronx and has two children in their 30s, has been baking all of his life. He’s owned two bakeries since working for 30 years as pastry for New York Hospital. He closed his first shop, located on Amsterdam Avenue and West 122nd Street, after nearly a decade when his rents rose too high.
After Smalls relocated to West 118th Street nine years ago, some of his fans followed — placing orders over the phone for trays of his renowned rugelach.
“I’m not a business man,” he said. “I feel like these people are my family.”
Late Thursday afternoon, customer Charles Bowie, 60, sat at the bakery sipping coffee and chatting with the staff. He said he has been coming to the shop daily for the past four years, taking a downtown bus from his apartment more than 30 blocks away.
Bowie said he prefers the atmosphere to that of the nearby Starbucks and likes to do word puzzles with a pencil at his table.
“Give the small businessman a break,” he said of the chain coffee shop’s clientele. “They pay $5 for a coffee so they can use their computer all day, but they never look or speak to anyone else.
“I’ll be devastated if he closes,” Bowie added. “I’d be like, I don’t know where to go. First of all, I won’t know where to get my rugelach. Second of all, I feel at home here.”