One of the most visible signs of the current economy is shuttered small business storefronts. “Here today, gone tomorrow,” they seem to say, many after having been open for years.
Three New York City storefronts are saying instead “Come in, we’re open!” Located on East 87th Street in the city’s Upper East Side neighborhood, their owners and a manager have kept a computer repair store, hair salon, and dog grooming parlor open by personally connecting with the immediate neighborhood and its residents. They have managed to keep their stores alive while operating in workspaces smaller than the smallest city apartment and in the shadow of huge chain stores such as Staples and Best Buy.
Their secret is simple. They have stayed local while offering old-fashioned, thoughtful, one on one customer service. They even take the time to talk to their patrons.
Owners Avi Keller and Miro Rurmy opened their store, “My Computer Tech” in 2009. Trained in Israel, they moved to the Upper East Side neighborhood after running a similar store in the Long Island suburb of Five Towns, New York. They picked their current location, down the street from a Catholic Church and school, at the prospect of more exposure, “of having a lot of people,” says Miro. The mainstay of their business is computer repair, ranging from fixing computer viruses to coming to the rescue of a MAC user who’s spilled his morning coffee all over the keyboard. They don’t sell new computers or software, but they will make recommendations if asked.
Business, Avi and Miro say, is “overall good”. They estimate that the majority of it comes from an approximately 7 block radius. “We love the neighborhood, it’s a real community here,” says Avi. “Everyone knows everyone.” The rest comes from other parts of New York City, often after patrons have found the store via Internet searches. “We get very good reviews from our customers,” Miro says proudly.
The secret to their maintaining success, they say, is that Instead of competing directly, they fill a niche not offered by one of the nearby chain stores.
“It’s our personal service,” says Avi emphatically. “You do not get personal service at a big company. They don’t know you; they don’t know your name.” “We are not on the same plane,” adds Miro.
A key element is their polite and gracious phone service. “Instead of customers coming all the way here, we can answer their questions over the phone,” says Avi. Most of the phone calls are about general computer knowledge. “We answer all the questions they ask,” says Miro.
The phone rings and Miro answers it. He listens, and then tells the caller “I just need to get another part.” After hanging up, he explains that they are repairing someone’s Motherboard, which died, or as Miro says, “was fried.”
Some people stop by the store in person seeking answers. “We get people in the store who don’t understand how things work,” says Miro. “Of course we try to explain it to them.”
Another customer service they provide is not charging for their diagnostics of computer problems, a common practice in the larger chain stores.
“A person who pays for diagnostics has already been pulled in,” explains Avi. “Having already spent money they will feel they have to pay for all these repairs when they really don’t have to,” he explains. “We believe people will be happier if they really have a say in the repairs, not being pulled in after they’re already been charged fees.”
Across First Avenue from Miro and Avi is Josef Pinhasov, proprietor of his “Hair Studio”. Born in Uzbekistan, he has been living in the United Sates for ten years after emigrating from Israel. He learned to cut hair, as puts it “in Russia”. He worked in another salon at the same site until the owner closed the business in 2009. A year later and now the sole owner, he re-opened the salon under his own name. One of his customers is Avi.
Terming business “a little bit slow but OK” Josef’s optimistic it will get better with the arrival of fall and winter. His customers, he says, come from all over, “New Jersey, Staten Island, Upper East Side, Midtown Manhattan.” He says he cuts any length, for men, women and children. Some of his customers, he says, have followed him for 8-9 years.
They key to his longevity, he says, is “My people.” They know about him, he says, “By mouth. Recommendations.”
Another source of business is first time customer walk-ins. Raz Kumar, who is working on the sidewalk outside the salon for a contracting business, pops in for a quick trim.
“I just met him out on the sidewalk,” says Raz of Josef. “He seemed like a nice guy.” A few minutes later, Raz is back at work, sporting his new haircut.
One of the unique features of Josef’s salon is the photographs hanging on the wall. They were taken by Salvadora Lorelli, whose website is called ““Fine Art by An Angry Woman”. A long time customer who has been living on East 87th Street for 36 years, Josef has been cutting her and her husband’s hair for several years.
“He’s such a funny guy. Has such a playful personality. So humorous,” she says. “People don’t want to change hairdressers,” she adds in the middle of her haircut. “I’d change a doctor before I change my hairdresser.”
Next door to Josef is “Doggy Stylez” managed by Tommy Bedio. A grooming parlor for dogs, it is often filled with four footed customers getting their own type of hair cuts and trims.
Open since October, 2010 Tommy manages it for an off-site proprietor. Saying “maybe one day I’ll be the owner,” he agreed to run the store because he was in the process of moving to the New York City from the suburbs of Long Island.
“I love the neighborhood,” he says of the Upper East Side. “It’s more active, friendlier people. It’s a real neighborhood, people care. “One major difference he notes is that stores are “open 24 hours” in New York City.
Word-of mouth, both canine and human, is essential.
“People see my work, the grooming, when they are walking their dogs,” he says. “Owners recommend my salon to other owners.”
George Kisha, a retired assistant school superintendent, brings in Teddy, a shizhu,poodle,maltese four and a half year old mixed breed into the store.
“Get’s the same length all around,” George tells Tommy as they discuss the logistics of Teddy’s cut, adding, “with a short squirrel tail.”
Both George and Teddy are first time customers. “I heard good things about this place,” George says, having just moved to nearby Lexington Avenue from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “Some of my neighbors bring their dogs here.”
Business is OK with “peaks and valleys,” says Tommy, while he gently looks over Teddy. He’s also hopeful it will get better with the fall months.
“You really feel the economy,” he says thoughtfully. “Here there’s a lot of fluctuation. People rent and move out after a year. Not like the suburbs where people have a house for 30 years. The difference is the city has turnaround, not so stable. I have my regular customers that still live in the area. But always have new ones.”
The most important feature to his success, he says, is the extra length he goes to with his canine customers.
“I care more about the animal’s health than people expect. I’m always looking out for them.”
In a world filled with economic uncertainty and political dysfunction, these three stores stand as a testament to the idea that survival isn’t just about flow charts and profits, it’s also about human connection and personal service. At Avi and Miro’s, a human being answers your questions about why your computer won’t work, at Josef’s you’ll get a quick trim with a smile, and at Tommy’s your four-footed friend will get dedicated hands-on attention. These are stores where everyone truly does know your name.
For further information:
My Computer Tech: www.mycomputertechinc.com, (212) 828-1600
Josef’s Hair Studio: (212) 427-4222
Doggy Stylez: www.doggystylezny.com, 212-996-4000