GREENWICH VILLAGE — Vincent Campanelli leaned against a sink in the back room of Joe's Dairy Saturday afternoon, washing fist-sized hunks of smoked mozzarella cheese for the last time.
Campanelli and his brother, the principal owner of Joe's, decided earlier this week to close the store, which has been a landmark of the downtown neighborhood since it opened on Jan. 3, 1977.
The cheese shop's demise is not complicated, or particularly dramatic. Rent increases haven't been severe — the brothers are paying $4,800 a month right now — their expenses have just been outpacing the store's revenues for too long.
"We hung out as long as we could, and we couldn't hold on any longer," said Campanelli.
On Saturday afternoon, Campanelli's routine was the same as it's been for years. He squeezed into a narrow alcove by the small back room's only window, surrounded by empty Dunkin' Donuts cups, washing tray after tray of soft, stretchy, coagulated milk.
"You work back here you've got to be dainty and agile," he said.
Campanelli, 60, has been working at Joe's Dairy more than half his life — he grew up above the store — and he has no trouble navigating the tiny room.
"Once you know your territory, you just know where to move."
Joe's doesn't recognize its territory anymore, and its had trouble keeping up with the changes. The Italian families who used to dominate the neighborhood have mostly moved out, and the specialty store has been struggling to compete with larger convenience stores.
"With the way you have all your superstores, you can't compete. To compete with that we'd have to raise our prices to a ridiculous amount," said Campanelli.
But all is not lost.
While Joe's storefront at 156 Sullivan St. will close, the store will continue selling cheese wholesale out of Fairfield, N.J.
Campanelli, who will soon have a hip and two knee replacements, said it will allow him to work from home, while his brother handles the logistics in their New Jersey warehouse.
"The spirit is strong here," he said, "[but] when you're 25 and you can do something, you're OK. When you get to 50, 60, you can't do it anymore."
The line was out the door at Joe's on Saturday afternoon — not very hard to achieve at the tiny store.
Rose Pianoforte, who has been working the counter at Joe's for 15 years, managed a quick lunch break on Saturday afternoon. She stood on the curb outside eating her first meal of the day: a tin foil tray of potato chips.
"I knew they were going to be going, but I though after the summer, after the holidays. I didn't think it would be this soon," she said.
Pianoforte is now out of a job. She said she was told when she came in to work on Wednesday morning. On Saturday, she seemed too busy to dwell on the impending closure. After a few handfuls of chips, she was back inside behind the counter.
Campanelli said the decision to close the storefront was primarily his brother, Anthony's decision.
"I'm not going to fight him on that," he said. "I think the wholesale will carry us. We're alright there."
Joe's distributes its cheese to restaurants and supermarkets around the city and tri-state area, including Lombardi's, Fairways and Aroma coffee shops.
The store's closure nearly completes the transformation of the neighborhood from an Italian corner of the city to one of its most fashionable zip codes.
Susan Hepner used to be a regular customer when she lived in the neighborhood. She described an Italian walking tour she took of the neighborhood a decade ago. It had been led by actress Marisa Tomei's mother, and the last stop had been Joe's.
"Look at this place, there was something about coming here that was special," said Hepner.
Jane Macdonald was another Joe's regular, until she moved out of the neighborhood. She now lives in Provincetown, Mass., but said she always stops in at the store when she's in town.
She didn't know the store was closing until she stepped up to the register to pay.
"It's really your last day?" she said, leaning against the counter.
Pianoforte's daughter, working behind the counter, nodded.
"I want one more then," said Macdonald.
A few minutes later, she stepped outside with her mozzarella and took a photo of the diminutive storefront.
"It's been the best for so many years," she said. "There goes the neighborhood, as they say."
Ultimately, Joe's couldn't withstand the loss of its loyal patrons. Now the store gets most of its business from casual shoppers coming from all over the city.
Mike Korn, who recently moved into the neighborhood, is one example of Joe's new clientele.
"It's sad," he said, standing in line on Saturday afternoon.
"I don't come here all the time, so it's not too bad," he added. "I'll find another place for cheese."