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Locals Fight to Save 99 Cent Store in 'Land of the $14 Hamburger'

By Gwynne Hogan | March 14, 2017 9:54am
 Mohammed Alyafai, 56, has invested nearly two decades of his life into Java Discount. If they close at the end of the month, he's not sure where he'll turn.
Mohammed Alyafai, 56, has invested nearly two decades of his life into Java Discount. If they close at the end of the month, he's not sure where he'll turn.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

GREENPOINT —  In what's increasingly the land of craft beer bars, pour-over coffee shops and $14 hamburgers, some neighborhood residents are fighting to hold onto an average discount household supply store they depend on every day.

The co-owners of Java Discount at 987 Manhattan Ave., which has been in business for 17 years, were served with eviction papers earlier this month demanding they vacate by the end of March, they said.

And a few residents who rely on the store for batteries, Band-Aids, cleaning supplies, candles and everything in between, started a online petition and have begun to reach out to local elected officials in a bid to keep the place open.

 Java Discount has been on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint for the last 17 years.
Java Discount has been on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint for the last 17 years.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

"You can thumb your nose that this is mass-produced, cheap stuff from China, but we've become reliant on it," said Heather Letzkus, who's lived across the street from Java Discount since it opened. Letzkus, an artist, shops at the store for plastic cups to mix paint, lavender-scented ammonia to clean her floors, batteries, candles and other gear.

"It's not sexy but it's needed," she said. "If you want a place to get anything, this is pretty much it."

Long-term Greenpoint residents have watched longtime businesses, one by one, close up shop to make way for stores that cater to newer, wealthier residents. Other storefronts sit vacant as landlords wait to sell their buildings. On the block where Java Discount sits, three of the eight neighboring storefronts are vacant.

Within a few blocks of Java Discount, what used to be a doctor's office is now a burger joint called Barley with burgers ranging between $10 and $14. What was once a Polish gift card and toy store is now a CitiHabitats real estate office. A former Polish deli is now Odd Fox Coffee, featuring Brooklyn roasted beans. A second Polish Deli closed and now houses Eastern District, an artisanal cheese, craft beer and sandwich shop.

"Now it's the land of the $14 hamburger. Every restaurant that opens up I go and look at the menu and see if its a $14 dollar hamburger and in fact it is," said Margot Spindelman, 55, an artist and graphic designer who's also lived in Greenpoint for 17 years. "For those of us who live here, these are core benefits that are going away."

If Java Discount closes, she'll shop at Staples much farther down on Morgan Avenue or order things she needs online.

Matthew Ricke, 36, part-owner of Esme, a new American restaurant and cocktail bar that opened in 2014 a block away from Java in place of a Mexican restaurant, and whose menu features $14 hamburgers, said he relies on Java Discount nearly every day.

"Something will break here in the restaurant, electric fixtures, a piece of equipment," he said.

While Ricke said he understands he and his business are "part of the sort of gentrification of the neighborhood in some sense," he makes sure that he is connected with his neighbors and tries to support the other shop owners around him by buying supplies and services for both his restaurant and his home nearby.

If Greenpoint residents don't shop local, he said, "there's not going to be anyone left to get the stuff we need," he said.

Owners of Java Discount Nassar Abdull, 42 and Mohammed Alyafai, 56 have invested their life for two decades into their business, they said. They have six kids to support between the two of them, and they've been desperately hunting for a place to relocate to no avail, they said.

"I don't know what we [are going to] do," Alyafai said.

"We pay our rent first day [of the month]" Alyafai said. "Whatever they need we have it."

Their lease expired in 2013 and the landlord, Katherine Dudziak, wouldn't give them a new one, though they've continued to pay their monthly rent, they said.

Then a few months ago, Dudziak fell ill and moved out to be cared for in the hospital, leaving a relative to take charge, according to attorney Evy Baltrunas. The relative and is now trying to sell the building, Baltrunas said.

Java's situation is not unique.

In 2014, city lawmakers introduced the Small Business Survival Act that aimed to protect small businesses facing the same kind of situation as the discount store by granting them a right to lease renewals the same way rent stabilized tenants are.

But the act failed to gain traction in the city council and has been at a standstill ever since.

As the end of March draws near, neighbors who care about Java are weighing their options, though it increasingly seems like an unwinnable fight.

"I'm not optimistic, but [you have to] try," Letzkus said. "Isn't just about them. It's about the community. You need diapers. You need batteries."