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Boutique Owners Cope With San Gennaro Feast

By Patrick Hedlund | September 16, 2011 5:29pm

LITTLE ITALY — As the sights, sounds — and smells — of the annual San Gennaro festival return to Mulberry Street, boutique owners who complained about the massive street fair’s impact on business resigned themselves Friday to weathering the busy 10-day feast.

Supporters of the 85-year-old festival squared off with business owners earlier this year over an attempt to cut the event short, but the historic feast was ultimately allowed to proceed in full as planned.

As the sausages cooked and zeppole fried Friday afternoon, shop employees coped as best they could with the fair overrunning the block.

“We didn’t mind it in the past because we didn’t have a booth in front of us,” said Nicole Ye, a buyer at B. Tiff jewelry store on Mulberry Street, as she looked out onto the rows of vendors’ tents blocking the view of her shop from the street. “There’s no traffic. … It’s hard because [patrons] can’t even see the stores.”

Others echoed past gripes about the food-filled feast, with the scent of fried onions and peppers wafting into their upscale shops.

“I can’t really open the door because of the smell,” said Julie Kim, an employee at Think Closet on Mulberry Street who’s worked through five years of the festival. “It decreases the customers that come in.”

Kim, who recommended shaving days off of the feast, said she had already noticed a drop-off in patrons on day one of the feast Thursday. 

“Every time there’s an Italian festival, it kills the business.”

A San Gennaro staffer working the event said there has been increased enforcement this year by city agencies like the NYPD, Sanitation Department and Department of Environmental Protection, which has been out monitoring vendors’ sound levels.

The worker, who declined to give his name for fear of getting into hot water with festival organizers, said he noticed this year more DEP inspectors with decibel meters gauging sound levels from participants’ stereos.

“The festival is trying to do the best they can to satisfy all the groups, but unfortunately there’s always going to be dissatisfaction,” said the staffer, who called this year’s San Gennaro feast the biggest he’s ever seen.

“I think this year, because of all the pressure, the vendors got the message.”

One staffer at a womens’ wear boutique that opened in the past few months on Mulberry Street said she hoped the festival's many visitors would bring more customers into the shop.

But a day into the event, she said being blocked off from the street and having to close her front door due to the smell may keep patrons away.

“It’s a pretty long time for us,” said Helen Jung, of the length of the event.

She also asked that the name of her store be excluded, because a staffer from the prior business there received insulting phone calls after complaining publicly about San Gennaro.

“I’m waiting to see if it’ll be a good thing or a bad thing,” Jung said.

However, some new retail tenants on the block opted to get involved with the festival rather than fight it.

Acclaimed new pizza joint Rubirosa on Mulberry Street was busy selling gourmet braciole and cannoli out of a tent in front its barely year-old restaurant Friday.

“You choose the neighborhood you’re in. It’s just another way to promote our food and promote our restaurant,” said chef Al DiMeglio, a veteran of the high-end New York City restaurant scene.

“We chose to be on Mulberry Street. This is something that goes back forever — why not have fun with it?”

Longtime San Gennaro vendors like Tony Gaudino, 47, whose family has operated a sausage stand at the festival for 40 years, said people with problems about the event should suck it up for tradition’s sake.

“We have the right to have this festival — just like the West Indian Day Parade,” he said while grilling up sausages Friday. “This was once called Little Italy. Now what it’s called? Lolita?”

While the feast used to run until 4 a.m., Guadino said he ultimately understands storeowners’ complaints about the loss of business because rents today are so high.

“After it’s done, it’ll go back to being Lolita,” Guadino said, confusing the neighborhood moniker of NoLIta.

He also thought that shop owners shouldn’t simply dismiss festival-goers as not being their clientele, given the thousands of people who visit the event each year.

“Those 'greasy fingers' have money in their pockets,” Gaudino said.