QUEENS — Paul Ding, the owner of a clothing store on Lefferts Boulevard, is not sure if he will still be in business next year.
When he opened his Lily Trading store about four years ago in the heart of Kew Gardens — a wealthy neighborhood, where homes can easily sell for more than $1 million — he thought his company would thrive.
But he said that instead his rent and taxes keep going up, and he has not had as many customers as he had hoped.
“It’s very hard to make ends meet,” he said. “I may have to close.”
Ding's store is one of many struggling shops on a 5-block stretch of Lefferts Boulevard between Austin Street and Metropolitan Avenue, near the Long Island Rail Road station.
Four stores on the same block as Ding's business, between Grenfell Street and Beverly Road, have closed recently, including an Eastern European food market and a 99-Cent store, Ding said.
There is another vacant store across the street from his shop.
In total, more than half a dozen nearby storefronts have sat empty for months.
Some of the store windows are covered with tape and paper.
“The strip looks horrible,” said Esta-Joy Sydell, 48, a caterer who lives nearby. “It’s affecting the area and it’s bad for business.”
Business owners blame a rent increase and competition with the nearby Rego Center and Queens malls, and say the more stores close, the less likely customers will be to shop at the ones that remain.
“People want bargains and they want parking, a lot of which is not available here,” said Murray Berger, executive chairman of the Kew Gardens Civic Association, Inc. Berger added that “empty stores are always a curse," and added, "But there are so many now ... It’s very hard to find replacements.”
Owners say the problem isn't a lack of foot traffic. Three of the vacant storefronts are located across from Kew Gardens Cinemas, one of the most popular meeting places in the area.
“It brings down the neighborhood,” said Andrea Crawford, second vice chairwoman of Community Board 9. “And it’s sad because it’s a thriving community.”
Austin Barber Shop was one of the stores that was forced to relocate.
“We were in that location for 18 years,” said owner Gabriel Nektalov. He said he moved two years ago because the rent was $3,200 a month for a 400-square-foot corner store. “We are a small shop. And this is not Manhattan,” he said.
The shop moved to another location, also on Lefferts Boulevard, but closer to Kew Gardens Road. “The rent here is about half of what we paid there,” Nektalov said.
“It’s a neighborhood in transition,” she said. “Not that the landlords are pushing out the mom-and-pops, but what they are trying to do is to have more substantial retail.”
Consolo said the rents in the area have increased but prices are still a bargain in comparison with other retail areas.
“As the leases become due, there is a change and the old tenants are not acclimated to this new rent structure," she said. "It feels more expensive than the locals are used to.”
As a comparison, the average retail rent along Austin Street in Forest Hills is about $150 per square foot, Consolo said. On Jamaica Avenue, she said, it’s about $110-$120 per square foot and on 34th Street in Midtown, Manhattan — it’s about $500-$600.
Landlords who own the buildings with vacant stores in Kew Gardens, including Harlington Realty, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.