How Old-School Westchester Businesses Are Beating the Odds
Record shops, independent bookstores, and the neighborhood cobbler may seem like relics, but many — in seemingly endangered industries — are still going strong. What’s their secret?
Clockwork Records photos by Mike James
Tucked away in a Thornwood shopping plaza off Columbus Avenue is a rare species: a place where you can rent actual, physical DVDs. Visitors to Rose Hill Card and Video can amble to a shelf in the back of the store and choose from scores of films, from the critically acclaimed to animated comedies for kids. The price: about $4 for five nights.
Today, borrowing physical DVDs is a novelty: Why rent when you can stream? (Even though it wasn’t long ago that each town in Westchester had its own Blockbuster — or two.)
When new technologies or ways of conducting business upend entire industries, the changes can be exhilarating. Consider the comfort of streaming a movie at home or the convenience of having a high-powered camera built right into your smartphone.
But these changes can be unsettling, too. Netflix annihilated the neighborhood video store (and has done a number on the local cinema, too), and the iPhone inflicted serious damage to local camera-repair and electronics shops. Often, mom-and-pop stores don’t have the deep pockets necessary to survive big shifts in their industries. “Small businesses are less likely to have the capital backing to weather change,” explains David Glazer, an adjunct professor of business at Manhattanville College in Purchase.
Nor is there a single, proven business strategy for adapting. “There is little that is universal about change, except that it is not only constant, but happening at an ever-increasing rate,” Glazer adds.
Yet there are always survivors: plucky businesses that manage to persist — and even thrive — despite sweeping changes. Recently, we spoke with seven such merchants who shared their wisdom, their tribulations, and the strategies behind their continued success.
Adapt and Evolve
When George and Lorinda Longobardo opened Photo Works in Pleasantville nearly 15 years ago, camera shops and one-hour photo labs were a common sight.
“When we first moved to the neighborhood, there was one in Thornwood, one in Mount Kiscco, one in Chappaqua,” recalls George. “Now they’re all gone.” These days, Photo Works sees just one or two rolls of film come in each week. (This spring, Photo Works is moving to a new location in Pleasantville.)
The Longobardos have a 40-year pedigree in the industry; George’s first shop was a photo lab and retail store in Eastchester. In those four decades, the Longobardos have witnessed tectonic shifts in the industry. First came digital photography, rendering film obsolete. Then came online retailers offering steep discounts that brick-and-mortar shops couldn’t match. And then, most recently, cameras merged with our phones.
To stay relevant, the Longobardos have adapted to new needs. “As you start to see the Internet take over something, you eliminate [that business component]. You bring something else in, become service-oriented,” explains Lorinda. Today, that means snapping social media headshots and editing video slideshows for parties. They’re also bridging technological gaps: converting reel-to-reel audiotape to digital files, rendering analog film as digital, and digitizing shoeboxes of old photographs.
“We call it a shoebox-scan service,” George says of the popular offering. But while flash drives and the cloud are more manageable than a tattered shoebox, he still suggests customers keep their originals. A lost flash drive can wipe out thousands of photos. Plus, “an album is easy to show,” George says. “You don’t have to plug anything in the wall.”
In Peekskill, Direct Mail of NY has also weathered seismic industry changes: The 50-year-old marketing firm got its start when email and smartphones were science fiction. Yet, Direct Mail of NY “is still thriving,” says senior account manager Christine Saluto, who cites the firm’s tenacious “bobbing and weaving.”
Ongoing success has meant expanding services far beyond the company’s name. Direct Mail of NY still offers its eponymous service but now conducts email marketing and data analytics, too.
“[Print marketing is] tangible. If you have something in your hand, you see the message. There’s a little less noise.” ”
—Christine Saluto senior account manager, Direct Mail of NY
Saluto says print and digital marketing should complement, not compete with, each other. A direct-mail campaign might point customers toward a company’s website, she explains. And data culled from the Internet can help determine who will receive a paper-and-ink newsletter in their mailbox.
In a world of endless alerts, emails, and texts, print can also stand out, Saluto adds. “It’s tangible. [Online] it’s easy to delete, delete, delete. If you have something in your hand, you see the message. There’s a little less noise.”
Analog is Cool
Some old-fashioned businesses are thriving not despite their age but because of it.
Today, most entertainment — books, music, movies, games — doesn’t have a physical presence. It’s pixels on a Kindle or apps on a smartphone. An entire music collection can be stashed on the cloud and carried in a front pocket.
As a result, analog technology, like vinyl records, can seem prehistoric — yet cool. Tapping on a screen simply isn’t as rewarding as shaking a record out of its sleeve, blowing off the dust, and placing it just-so on the turntable.
Clockwork Records in Hastings-on-Hudson
The reason vinyl sales are climbing again is that records are “a tangible item,” says Mike James, the owner of Clockwork Records in Hastings-on-Hudson. “If you’re a fan of a band, there’s something about owning a piece of their property.” (Plus, there’s that vinyl vibe: “The sound is superior,” James says.)
A renewed interest in vinyl is a welcome trend at Clockwork Records. The shop recalls the record stores of old: bins of vinyl, posters of jazz and punk greats, and carefully curated music pumping through the speakers. “It’s a destination,” he says, noting the store draws audiophiles from across Westchester and New York City.
Ironically, an important part of James’ business strategy entails the technology that initially usurped hardcopy music: the Internet. “I have to sell online,” he says, noting that Hastings simply doesn’t generate enough foot traffic during the week. “You have to adapt.” And so he does: Clockwork Records ships records, concert posters, and other merchandise around the world.
Despite growing interest in records, James isn’t predicting a full-blown, mainstream comeback. “[Vinyl] has always been a niche market, and it always will be,” he says. “It will never supplant digital.” Maybe so — but on a recent weekend, a young Clockwork customer thumbed through a bin, plucked out a stack of records and made a beeline for the register.
PHOTO BY LIZ FARRELL
“People love to get together to experience art and ideas. [The Picture House] has a very family and community feel to it.”
—Laura Debuys, Executive Director,The Picture House
Classic-cool is also part of the appeal of The Picture House in Pelham, says executive director Laura deBuys. “We’re the oldest continuously running movie theater in Westchester,” she explains. It shows: The 97-year-old theater features such homages to elegance as a vaulted wood-beam ceiling and wall-sconce lighting.
This charm allows the theater to compete with sprawling multiplexes and seemingly infinite streaming services. According to deBuys, visitors’ reactions are often: “This is the kind of place where movies should be shown!” Outstanding concessions help, too: “We have what we think is the best popcorn in Westchester,” she adds.
The Picture House complements its charm with intimate programming you can’t find at 25-screen multiplexes, including advanced screenings, director Q&As, educational programs, and a Wednesday-evening film club. “People love to get together to experience art and ideas,” deBuys says. “[The Picture House] has a very family and community feel to it.”
The theater’s strategy of embracing history and intimacy is paying off: “Since 2014, there has been a 36 percent growth in revenue,” deBuys says. The nonprofit’s 2017 annual appeal raised 50 percent more than the previous year’s, and The Picture House recently nabbed two state grants, totaling more than $50,000.
In an era of fast fashion and $20 sweaters that we fully expect to unravel after just one season, cobblers and their ilk have become scarce. So stepping into Frank Pagnotta’s store in Tuckahoe is a bit like stepping back in time. Inside Crestwood Shoe Repair, big, wooden shelves creak under the weight of brown parcels. The aroma of fabric dye and leather lotion hangs in the air. And behind the counter, clunky machinery whirs and buzzes.
Photo by Gabriella Rios
The service itself is old-timey, too. Originally from Calabria, Italy, Pagnotta has been in the repair industry for about 50 years, based in Tuckahoe for 40. He’s warm, spirited, and has a reputation for being able to fix anything.
“A lot of stuff comes in here,” he says, and he always finds a way to patch or repair. “Whatever’s got to be done.” Pagnotta mends many a shoe but also handbags, furniture, and upholstery.
For those in Tuckahoe, Crestwood Shoe Repair offers a bit of nostalgia but also something far more practical. When that prized pocketbook tears, or your father’s old wingtips get ground down, Pagnotta can breathe new life into these treasured possessions.
Old-school service is also the modus operandi at Valerie Wilson Travel, headquartered in Purchase. While many travelers today rely on Expedia or Yelp to book their trips and events, Valerie Wilson Travel provides a “personal touch,” says Harley Riak, an executive director at the travel agency. He and his team have planned African safaris, cruises, multigenerational family trips, and other excursions.
“We are able to get special amenities, reservations, and items not readily available to the common traveler,” Riak explains. “We are able to get the special table in a restaurant or a hard-to-get theater ticket.”
Riak also notes that automated travel websites aren’t always as handy as they seem. “What happens when your flight is cancelled or your reservation at the hotel is wrong? What happens if there is a natural disaster or weather-related problem?” he asks. “Who will you call, Mr. Expedia?
“A Valerie Wilson Travel agent is available 24/7, 365 days a year,” Riak adds.
The Voracious Reader in Larchmont
“People still want community. They want a place to go into town, spend an hour browsing and see neighbors.”
—Francine Lucidon, Proprietor, the Voracious Reader
In addition to one-on-one attention, a sense of community helps these types of businesses thrive, with neighbors congregating in a familiar store to shop, swap stories, and catch up. It’s this sense of community that’s allowed The Voracious Reader, a children’s bookstore in Larchmont, to stand strong in the age of Amazon.
“People still want community,” says Francine Lucidon, proprietor of The Voracious Reader. “They want a place to go into town, spend an hour browsing and see neighbors.”
The Voracious Reader provides just that. Its books displayed proudly on tables and lined neatly on shelves, the store regularly hosts authors and illustrators. A book club for youngsters meets the first Friday of every month, and in the attached tea room, students will settle in and do their homework over bowls of ice cream. During the summer months, Lucidon hires local teens who’d visited the shop with their parents for story time when they were kids.
Change is a Constant
As these Westchester businesses strive to remain relevant, their strategies are as diverse as the products and services they offer: There’s the record-shop owner who sells his analog items online; the cobbler who offers the lost art of restoration; the travel agency that provides a human touch software cannot.
With technology and shopping habits constantly evolving, other Westchester businesses will surely join their ranks. Resilient grocery stores will find a way to weather FreshDirect; tenacious taxi companies will fill a gap Uber cannot.
Down the line, these plucky local businesses may encounter a welcome change. When it's mentioned that independent bookshops are a rare breed, Lucidon of The Voracious Reader interjects politely.
“I beg to differ,” she says. “Independent bookstores are on the rise.” Lucidon had recently returned from a regional bookseller conference, where she’d crossed paths with several young bookworms and bibliophiles who were opening shops of their own.
Westchester-based freelance writer Kevin Zawacki is a frequent contributer to 914INC.