UPPER WEST SIDE — Customers of the 83-year-old West Side Judaica have rallied around the struggling business, keeping it afloat — for now — despite rising rent prices.
Owner Yaakov Saltzer told West Side Rag in late July that he planned to close the store's Broadway location, between West 88th and 89th Streets, because he couldn't afford to keep it open. But Saltzer says the bad news generated a wave of patronage, and that his doors will stay open.
“Business picked up a lot and I hope it keeps up,” Saltzer said of the influx of customers. “Recently, more people heard about it and they want us to stay and they want to support us.”
Saltzer, 60, has owned West Side Judaica — one of the two remaining Judaica stores left in the borough — since the early 1980s. The store sells Jewish items like books, menorahs, and kiddush cups. As the years went on, Saltzer said his business declined with the introduction of online retailers, while his rent nearly tripled.
“When I moved to this location, I was paying $8,300 a month, that was 15 years ago,” Saltzer said. “Now I am paying $22,000 a month plus real estate tax, another $2,200.”
While businesses across the city have recently struggled to survive under exorbitant rents, the problem has become a key campaign issue in the race for the Upper West Side's City Council seat in the sixth district.
In late July, Mel Wymore, who is running against the incumbent Helen Rosenthal, released an empty storefront survey conducted throughout the district and found 136 vacancies, some of which he said have been vacant for more than five years. The candidate believes landlords should be charged with a vacancy tax to discourage them from keeping empty stores.
“Right now we have a crisis. Empty storefronts cause dirty streets and dark shadows at night,” Wymore said. “It creates a real lack of local activity and vibrancy that creates the character of the neighborhood.”
Rosenthal is working on two bills to try to help small businesses stay alive. Her bills, Intros 799 and 1376, aims to reform commercial rent tax—an additional cost for businesses in Manhattan between 96th Street and Chambers Street that pay $250,000 or more in annual rent—by increasing the threshold to $500,000 and requiring the Department of Finance to release an annual report on businesses who pay the commercial rent tax.
Danny Levine, the fourth generation owner of Manhattan's other Judaica store, J.Levine Books and Judaica at 5 West 30th Street, said part of his success comes from embracing the online side of his business. Levine, whose family owns the building, said his profits are split between 60 percent retail and 40 percent online through an Amazon storefront and webpage store.
Levine said his competition has thinned out over the years, but added that his store and West Side Judaica always maintained a professional relationship — they often buy books from each other if they’re missing one that a customer requests.
Saltzer, the owner of West Side Judaica, said that he hopes his customers will keep coming back after this recent burst of enthusiasm subsides.
“I was taught to think positive," he said. "Now it picks up, hopefully it lasts and hopefully we’ll stay.”