JACKSON HEIGHTS — Mohammed Kasem survived the Bangladesh Liberation War, learned Russian in the former Soviet Union and used his language skills to parlay a successful business on the Lower East Side.
Now his travels have taken him to Jackson Heights, where he is hoping to make it with his new shop, the Jackson Heights Perfume Market on 37th Avenue, which opened in December.
Born in Bangladesh, Kasem, 54, moved to the former Soviet Union as a teenager after his parents were killed during the Bangladesh Liberation War.
The Soviet Union was an ally to Bangladesh during the war, and they opened their country to Bangladeshi orphans, he said.
After college, he traveled across Europe and later the United States before settling in New York City in 1993. He first worked odd jobs, but then used his fluency in Russian to befriend shopkeepers who dominated the Lower East Side in the 1990s.
Starting with a tiny corner of a Russian-owned shop in 1994, he sold belts, purses and some perfume.
Kasem expanded to his own shop on Delancey and Orchard streets, and he developed relationships with perfume distributors all over the country and sold his wares for nearly 20 years.
He learned English from his customers, he said, and he always maintained "honest" and reasonable prices.
"I don't jack up the price, I take a small profit," he said.
After the new owner of his building increased his rent in 2011, he closed up shop, and began searching for a new storefront.
"I was almost desperate," he said. "It's hard to find a store in New York City."
Kasem found his current store, on 37th Avenue near the corner of 81st Street, last fall and rushed to get it open in time for Christmas.
The the shelves are stocked with more than 2,000 perfumes and colognes from world-renowned designers, and he charges a minimal markup from the wholesale price.
He also provides specialty orders of items he doesn't have on his shelves, with most arriving within two to three days after he places an order.
A Hermes perfume, for example, retails for around $150 at other stores, he said, but he only charges $85.
"My hidden capital is my honesty," he said. "Normally in New York, nobody cares. But if you care, it will bring you business."
Kasem said perfume business at local stores usually take around two to three years to pick up, but he's already seen return customers in his store.
"I see familiar faces, always," he said. He said he hopes to also sell handbags and sunglasses once the summer rolls around, and is still working to add more shelves.
Kasem's adjusting to the neighborhood, traveling daily from his apartment on the Lower East Side.
He's impressed with the architecture of the old, pre-war buildings surrounding his shop, as well as the neighbors he sees from his store window. He said out of all the cities he's traveled, the historic neighborhood he's now selling in is one of the best.
"This is the best place to live, work and raise kids in entire New York City," he said. "I feel confident here."
Jackson Heights Perfume Market, 81-17 37th Avenue, is open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m.