By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — When Joe and Rachelle Friedman opened a tiny gadget shop called J&R in 1971, they hoped to make a little extra money to support themselves.
Forty years later, the Park Row institution has expanded from a 500-square-foot storefront to a 300,000-square-foot empire, selling everything from iPads to the vinyl records that first earned the shop a loyal following.
"We never wanted to be the biggest retailer," Rachelle Friedman told a crowd of well-wishers gathered at the store Thursday morning. "We just wanted to be the best."
Over the years, the Friedmans constantly focused on innovation, opening the city's first record shop just for jazz lovers, and later the first Apple store-within-a-store in the country. They also built a reputation for strong customer service by delivering all special orders within 24 hours and recently opened a cafe to offer all electornics buyers a free cup of coffee.
The Friedmans also became active members of the downtown community, maintaining a mom-and-pop attitude even as the business grew.
"This really is the heart and soul and center of our city," State Sen. Daniel Squadron said at Thursday's celebration. "It defines what you can do as a local business, but also as a business that's integral to the community."
Before a rousing round of "Happy Birthday," Squadron presented Rachelle Friedman with a state Legislature resolution commending J&R. Then Councilwoman Margaret Chin announced that she hopes to rename a block of Park Row "J&R Way" in honor of the store.
Neither Joe nor Rachelle had a background in business when they started J&R — Joe was an engineer, and Rachelle was studying chemistry at Polytechnic University. She was one of just three women in the entire school, which did not have any women's restrooms, she recalled.
As the electronics business grew, the Friedmans gradually devoted themselves to it full-time. They added a mail-order option 36 years ago when Rachelle was pregnant with their first child, to allow her to work from home. The company bought adjacent storefronts on their block as they became available and launched a website in 1997.
In 2001, Joe and Rachelle were looking forward to celebrating J&R's 30th anniversary with a big party and specials for their customers. Then 9/11 struck, and the Friedmans faced what Rachelle describes as "the ultimate test."
"We were emotionally numb, almost paralyzed," she said. "In the first days and weeks, we wondered: If we rebuilt, would they come?"
Friends advised the Friedmans to wait until after Christmas 2001 to reopen the store. While that would have made financial sense, the couple pushed through the repairs and got the store open just seven weeks after the attacks.
"We didn't want our customers to get used to living without us," Friedman said. "We sent a signal that downtown was getting back to normal."
To celebrate the store's 40th anniversary this year, Friedman is planning a technology expo and music festival in August. She is also working on a discount program for downtown residents and students, which will be announced soon.
Friedman says she has resisted lucrative offers to sell the company, because she wants to keep it in good shape to pass on to her children someday — but not just yet.
"We come to work with the same excitement and enthusiasm we did 40 years ago," she said.