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Success Secrets from Some of the City's Oldest Small Businesses

By Amy Zimmer | October 24, 2012 7:28am

MANHATTAN — Harris Levy began as a pushcart on Orchard Street, like many small businesses established on the Lower East Side at the end of the 1800s.

But the shop, which specializes in fine and luxurious linens, is one of the few that remains in the area that is still family-owned. 

It has weathered more than 100 years of economic ups and downs as well as dramatic shifts in the neighborhood, from the overcrowded tenements of Eastern European Jews and other immigrants to today’s influx of hip young professionals.

“In the span of 118 years, we’ve always been in a six-block radius,” said Bob Levy, the fourth-generation owner of Harris Levy, now in its fourth Lower East Side home, at 98 Forsyth St. “We’ve kept the same philosophy of really good value and top merchandise at a discount.”

The business, which opened in 1894, has depended on sacrifice, luck and, most importantly, on family members' commitment to both the business and to providing customer service. That same formula, and a few other tricks of the trade, has helped many family-owned small businesses from the Lower East Side to Inwood survive for genenrations. 

Taking Care of Your People

“It’s very difficult for a small business to survive,” said Levy, who bought the store with his wife, Meryl, in 1994 when his father and cousin retired. “My father was a workaholic. He wound up with prostate cancer and found out he wasn’t immortal and that working six days a week for 60 years was enough already.”

Levy himself worked two jobs: at the store and as a paramedic. When the store was doing well, Levy would take fewer paramedic shifts; when times weren’t so hot, he’d take more and even get health insurance that way. The paramedic job literally saved the business after 9/11, when the store lost 80 percent of its business over six months.  After working overtime at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, he was able to use those checks to pay vendors and employees.

Levy works part time, and Meryl works five days, so there’s always an owner on hand.

“You’ll never see someone unhappy [at Harris Levy]. If people are unhappy, I’ll make them happy. Our reputation is most important for me,” Levy said. “Even on Madison Avenue you won’t get the service of having an owner wait on you.”

Other family stores that have withstood the test of time have also prided themselves on their customer service.

At Just Plastics, an Inwood company that’s been creating furniture and museum display cases since 1944, third-generation owner Bob Vermann said, “Just like my grandfather before me and my father before me, I try and look at just about every piece that leaves the factory. If I can’t … yell from the rooftop [that] I made this piece and be proud of it, I can’t ship it. I won’t ship it.”

Many of these stores not only pride themselves on treating customers well, they also treat employees well.

Bob Levy, for instance, said he’d rather close his shop than stop paying health insurance for his two employees, both of whom have been working at Harris Levy for more than 20 years.

At Moscot eyewear, which also started from an Orchard Street pushcart 97 years ago, Harvey Moscot — the fourth-generation owner — said, “We always stay true to our values that generations before me have preached,” adding, “We treat our employees like we treat our customers: with great respect and dignity.”

Managing Costs

At one time Harris Levy occupied the storefronts of two connected buildings, one on Grand Street — where the shop’s entrance was — and one on Forsyth Street, across from Sara Delano Roosevelt Park. 

Levy decided in 2000 that business would be boosted by a major expansion to the second floor of the buildings. But that was derailed by 9/11.

In 2005, Harris Levy ended up halving in size.

“Now, it’s a boutique,” Levy said. “When I told my mother she started crying because we had been on Grand Street for 60-something years. But cutting the store in half was one of the things that helped us stay in business.”

He also reduced expenses by installing energy-saving light bulbs, for instance, using basic lighting that’s on during business hours and is augmented when customers enter.

Responding to the competition brought by big box stores such as Bed, Bath & Beyond, Levy decided to cut entire categories of goods rather than try to compete because he said he couldn’t change people’s perceptions that the chain was cheaper, even when it wasn't the case.

But Levy holds no grudges.

“That made us stronger,” he said, noting that the store branched out into other products such as fragrances, candles and puzzles.

The neighborhood’s resurgence has helped, too, as new residents are looking for high quality goods. It also helped that Levy is renting the store from his parents and another owner of the building, and pays below market rate, he said.

Owning its building on First Avenue near East 87th Street has made it possible for Glaser’s Bake Shop to stay put for 110 years. Here Herb Glaser runs the shop during the day, and his brother, John, does the night baking.

"I don’t know how small businesses do it," Herb Glaser told DNAinfo.com, noting that a Tex-Mex restaurant recently closed down across the street, where the rent reached $17,000 a month. "I couldn’t pay half of that."

What's Old is New Again

Many long-time businesses have benefited as tastes have changed, bringing established products back into vogue.

Jeremy Schaller, who started linking sausages at Schaller & Weber in Yorkville nearly 25 years ago when he was 8 and became the third generation of his family to work at the 75-year-old shop, said, "We've just kept it very authentic and provide good service.

"It's been tough," he said, "but there's a resurgence of artisanal food and 10 major beer gardens. Luckily, they want an authentic product."

That has helped the shop on Second Avenue and East 86th Street, whose façade now faces a construction site from the Second Avenue subway mega-project.

At William Poll, the Upper East Side gourmet staple, Stanley Poll said he constantly tinkers with the menu shaped by his mother, Christine, whose recipes still form the backbone of the 1501 Lexington Ave. shop.

“It’s a challenge because you’re trying to keep up,” Poll said of running a small business. “Actually, you’re trying to keep ahead.”

So while, beef bourguignon and beef Wellington were once popular frozen meals at the shop, as palates changed with the economy, chicken pot pie and shepherds pie became more popular, he said.

Continuing Family Tradition

Levy said his father never forced him into the family business and he plans to be hands-off about it with his two sons and daughter — though he thinks his daughter, 22, would “be great” at running the place.

Levy saw many of the family-owned businesses like his shutter when the next generation took up different professions, like medicine, law or finance — something their parents had encouraged.

“I always say to my kids, you’ve got to do what you’re passionate about,” he said. “It can be a really long day if you don’t.”