Editor’s note: In September we’ll be launching our yearlong Small Business Survival reporting project, including a series of local profiles. Today, here’s a glimpse of the series with a look at one business that’s closing after nearly three decades in the community. The story is reported by longtime resident Ilyse Kazar.
As shoe repair becomes an increasingly rare service on the Lower East Side, the neighborhood is about to lose another shop and another relationship with a long-established merchant. After 28 years, Alex Shoe Repair at 57 Second Avenue will be closing on Friday because the rent is slated to rise from $4,000 to $14,000 per month. The building is now managed by Icon Realty Management, which purchased the 10-story property for $24.8 million in January.
Born and raised in Uzbekistan in a Jewish family with four brothers and five sisters, Amnun “Alex” Kariyev immigrated to Chicago where he worked in a cable manufacturing company. Looking to run a business of his own, he went to school at night to learn the art of shoe repair.
Alex came to New York City and in 1986 set up shop on Second Avenue. When he started out, the rent was only $1,000, which might seem very low for the nicely proportioned 1,000 square foot space. But back then, Alex recalls, all of lower Second Avenue below 4th Street was “a no man’s land.” At the time, the building around the corner on East 3rd Street that now serves as Project Renewal’s drug and alcohol treatment center was not only a New York City homeless shelter with no treatment services, but was also the processing center for all homeless men in New York City. Crack cocaine use was epidemic, as well. Men were bused in from all five boroughs every morning for breakfast and processing, and for the remainder of the day the surrounding sidewalks were well populated with men who were on the down-and-out. Thus, it was hard to succeed in a storefront business, but Alex prevailed.
Alex Shoe Repair’s rent went up as neighborhood conditions improved, and Alex diversified his business and brought various concessions into his shop to increase revenue. Over the years, the storefront has offered watch repair, new shoes for sale and most recently even a barbershop. He was getting by, supporting his family in Queens, and had a landlady “who I could talk to.”
At the end of January, though, his aging landlady sold the building to a subsidiary of Icon Realty, and the rent hike to $14,000 was put on the table. Alex tried to find another space nearby. He sought help from Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, hoping to rent one of the storefronts in the tenant-controlled cooperative buildings they redeveloped in the 1990s. Alex says they were unable to help him. He also approached landlords of long-vacant storefronts across the street on Second Avenue, but could not find an affordable deal.
So now Alex is closing his shop and retiring sooner than he had planned. He bears no grudge against Icon Realty, who have given him his final month in the location free of charge. Having lived through the brand of Communism imposed by the former USSR, Alex says he believes in capitalism and that — at the price Icon paid for the property — they have the right to make money. The Real Deal reported that 28 of 33 apartments in the building are rent-stabilized, so Icon will, no doubt, be maximizing its profits in the commercial spaces. The hardware store next door to the shoe store will also be closing, and Icon is offering that space for $26,000 per month.)
As for Alex, he is thinking about doing photography next, which was his profession many years ago in Kazakhstan. He has enjoyed working in this area and has made some good friends among the locals, including author Hettie Jones, who wrote two poems about his store that he proudly keeps in a frame. One poem begins:
“Alex will fix your shoes with care
Because he thinks it’s only fair
To do good
For the neighborhood.”
Alex will miss his shop and the people in the community. He is hospitable in an old-world style, offering a seat, conversation, and maybe even a cup of tea to visitors, and neighbors will miss him too.
“I went in recently when I heard the shop was closing, to have the last repair done on a pair of shoes Alex has kept in good shape for me for years,” said Deanna Kirk, who lives across the street. “He’ll be missed, but I guess it’s like everything else, the way of the world. What else can we do, but embrace the horror of it. I hope he has a nice retirement.”
As Alex himself says, “Very seldom you find people like me. I always try to help people.” He tells of a day when his son was working with him in the store, and Alex noticed a man walking by who had no shoes, only plastic bags on his feet. Alex “wanted to show my son to be good to people,” beckoned the man into his store, and gave him socks and a pair of shoes. About four years later, a man walked into the store with a suit and tie, looking sharp, and said, “Remember you gave me shoes?” He had gotten his life back together, and never forgot the good turn Alex did for him.
Belying his stated belief in the capitalistic pursuit of wealth, “People run after money,” Alex says. “I run after making people happy, because that’s what’s important.”
Alex encourages his customers to visit another “Alex” shoe repair on First Avenue between 4th and 5th Streets.