UNION SQUARE — Ken Giddon has come a long way from using a baseball bat to guard his Union Square storefront from vandals in New York's infamous bad old days.
Now, his family's clothing store, Rothman's is thriving, and Giddon is promoting the city and its small businesses. He joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials Thursday to formally kick off the countdown to the second annual Small Business Saturday, to be held on Nov. 26.
The nation-wide event is meant as a celebration of local, independently-owned small businesses like Rothman’s, which have beaten the odds, often by placing everything on the line.
“We must support our neighborhoods,” said Kenneth Chenault, the chairman and CEO of American Express, who first came up with the “shop small” idea, which was intended as the small business version of big box stores’ Black Friday and online outlets' Cyber Monday.
He noted that small businesses now employ about half of workers in the private sector and create about 65 percent of new jobs.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to see small businesses thrive,” said Chenault, who said that companies that participated in the event last year enjoyed a 28 percent boost to sales.
Many Manhattan retailers expressed disappointment with the program last year, telling DNAinfo that they either didn’t know about the initiative or hadn’t seen any difference in sales.
To bolster its efforts, the city also rolled out a series of new initiates on Thursday, called “Building Blocks for Neighborhood Retail” to promote neighborhood retail corridors.
A new neighborhood leadership program will help give local business leaders a leg up in the process.
Businesses, including Business Improvement District directors, will be given access to a five-month training program in leadership and retail strategies. They'll also get access to a neighborhood retail leasing program to help retail corridors market themselves to businesses, and a new website that lists available retail properties, along with demographic data, to promote neighborhood retail development.
The city also plans to launch a new neighborhood pop-up store competition that will make vacant spaces availing to retailers willing to fill temporary shops.
The efforts are part of a larger effort by the city to boost owners like Giddon, who is currently planning a major expansion into a larger space just up the block from his existing store.
Rothman’s started as a pushcart on the streets on the Lower East Side. When Rothman's great-grandfather was killed by a horse-drawn ice truck in 1912, his grandfather, Harry Rothman, was forced to set up shop, selling rags from a cart before he moved into a brick and mortar store.
The company was all the rage back in the 60s, Giddon said, but its popularity eventually faded, in part because it was seen as selling “old man clothes” in the 70s and “really old man clothes” in the 80s.
When his grandfather died in 1986, Giddon, who was working as a bond trader in Boston and just about to enroll in business school at MIT, was asked to come and liquidate the store.
He’d expected to stay two weeks. He’s been there 25 years.
“I guess I had the entrepreneurial DNA,” said Giddon, who decided to take over the store, which by then had become surrounded with crime and blight.
It was so bad that NYU students at the time were instructed to avoid the block, according to Small Business Commissioner Robert Walsh, who formerly headed the Union Square Partnership for 15 years.
Giddon remembered how vandals used to break the store’s windows every few months, forcing him to stand guard until a replacement window arrived.
“I literally had to stand with a baseball bat,” he said.
But Rothman’s, like Union Square, gradually improved. The store has become one of the largest of its kind left in the city. (It was also the the first to mark its clothing with a Union Square logo.)
"They basically built this neighborhood," Walsh said of the store.
Today, Giddon said Rothman’s relies on top-notch customer service and a painstakingly crafted selection to keep his customers coming back, despite the tough economy.
“You have to work harder, be as efficient as you can,” he said.
And after so many years in its current home, Rothman’s is now planning an expansion into a new space, just a block away at 18th Street and Park Avenue, which is 4,000 square feet larger than his current 7,000 square-foot space.
He’ll also be increasing his workforce from 25 people to 40.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” he said of the store, which he hopes to open in Feb. "It blows this space away.”