David vs. Goliath Businesses

These small independent stores are more than holding their own against the mighty big-box chains.



Thanks to the economic downturn, ever-increasing competition from chain and big-box stores and the Internet, plus rising taxes, small businesses in Westchester have to work really, really hard to stay afloat. But the following independent shops are not only surviving but thriving—proving, once again, that size isn’t everything.

Greenleaf Pharmacy, Hastings
vs. CVS and Ride Aid, Ardsley and Yonker
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Greenleaf Pharmacy's Michael Altman

Since the turn of the 20th century, a pharmacy has existed in some form on Warburton Avenue and Greenleaf for the past 26 years. Pharmacist Michael Altman reports that Greenleaf has thrived since he bought the pharmacy in 2004.

What makes Greenleaf different from chain pharmacies?
Altman: Our customer service.

What advantages does a small pharmacy have over a giant one?
Altman: We’re a bridge between natural products and Western medicine. I am always looking at new supplements and medicines to give our customers the best products. And everything we have in the store I have either taken myself or done extensive research on.

How much has business grown since you came on as owner?
Altman: Our numbers have grown consistently every year, even during the downturn. Every day we get new customers and retain old ones; on average we get five hundred people a day walking through the store. We’re also expanding and offering same-day delivery to all the rivertowns, and I hope to roll out that service to all of southern Westchester. Also, our entire store inventory is available online.

You’re not just a pharmacy, are you?
Altman: No, we added an authentic soda fountain, and sell milkshakes and ice cream. Hastings is a throwback town, it’s almost like 1955 here, so I wanted to have that feel.

 

Slave to the Grind, Bronxville
vs. Starbucks, Bronxville

Slave to the Grind's Carol Marshall

Shortly after Slave to the Grind opened in 1993, the independent coffee shop had to compete with the 900-pound gorilla on the street: a Starbucks that sprang up the following year just around the corner. But, despite that, husband-and-wife owners Carol and Andy Marshall have shepherded the shop through an economic downturn and the increased competition to become a Bronxville institution.

How do you go up against a giant chain?
Carol: The reason Starbucks didn’t put us out of business is because we really are part of the community. For a lot of people, this is their place. They look at Slave to the Grind as a second home. We have a very loyal following.

What advantages do you have over the competition?
Carol: I really love good coffee, and I wanted to offer good coffee here. A place like Starbucks has to have coffee beans shipped to it from large farms in other parts of the world, and the beans have to be picked and shipped before they’re ripe. We buy from regional roasters, through the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and mix and match to create unique and fresh blends.

What else do you offer that a chain coffee shop cannot?
Carol: We cater to the local community. We have a community bulletin board, and sometimes feature poetry readings and musical performances.

Has the recession affected business?
Carol: We had to raise prices by twenty-five cents across the board due to the recession; it was the first time in four years we raised prices. In 2009, we saw a downturn, and now business is picking back up. People love their coffee, and it is something they can usually afford, as opposed to filet mignon.

 

Village Bookstore, Pleasantville
vs. Borders and Barnes & Noble (in 3 locations)

Village Bookstore's Roy Solomon and Yvonne van Cort

Pleasantville's Village Bookstore has been owned by Roy Solomon and his wife, Yvonne van Cort, for the past seven and a half. Not only does it face competition from Borders and Barnes & Noble throughout the county, but Amazon.com and the ever-increasing e-book market.

How have you been able to compete with chain bookstores and online markets?
Solomon: A lot has to do with our customers; they like having a bookstore in Pleasantville. We also try to stay very aware of what’s out there.

They say downtowns are dying, but your downtown features the Jacob Burns Film Center. How has it affected business?
Solomon: The Center has been really successful, which has caused rents to be raised for businesses in downtown Pleasantville. That's the downside. The upside: it also brings us a lot of walk-in traffic.

What’s your outlook for the year?
Solomon: It’s good. We’ve had solid single- digit growth every year since 2003, and overall our business has doubled since then.

 

Toys from the Attic, White Plains
vs. Sam Ash, White Plains

Toys from the Attic's Mario Campa

Anyone who has walked out of the Maple Avenue municipal garage in White Plains and onto Mamaroneck Avenue has likely seen the neon sign shining from the second floor location of Toys From the Attic. Although its primary business is selling guitars and other stringed instruments and musical accessories, the store has branched out to selling other products, such as fine pens and watches, and, as owner Mario A. Campa puts it, “anything cool.” Located directly across the street? Sam Ash, one of the country’s largest chain stores for musical instruments and accessories.

How does being across the street from Sam Ash affect business?
Campa: We're located here by design. When I decided to open this business, I thought, ‘I should be across the street from where everyone is already going.’ That’s helped a lot of people find out about us who wouldn’t have if we were in a different location.

How have you fared during the recession?
Campa: It’s been lean, and survival has come at a cost. I’ve had to cut salaries and I’ve taken almost no pay since August of 2008. But this year has been better. We’re up twenty percent as compared to last year.

How did you manage to stay afloat?
Campa: I needed to be willing to diversify outside of my comfort zone, and explore other opportunities. We do a great pen business now. Also, our capability for repair and restoration is great. We have a luthier, someone who makes and repairs stringed instruments, on staff, and I have relationships with superb watch and pen techs.

 

Berger Hardware, Hawthorne
vs. Home Depot, Mount Pleasant

Berger Hardware's Chris Rubeo, Mark Rubeo, and Aimee Nichols

When in 2004 siblings Chris Rubeo and Aimee Nichols, with their father Mark Rubeo, bought Berger Hardware from its longtime eponymous family owners, they knew they had a steep tradition of success to live up to. And after a Home Depot opened up nearby in Mount Pleasant two years later, the Rubeos worked to maintain the standing Berger Hardware had in Hawthorne and the surrounding communities—and they also strove to reach new heights with the business. In that they have succeeded, experiencing approximately a 10 percent growth since then.

What did you do upon taking over the store?
Aimee: We increased the amount of inventory and added services like screen repair and a propane refilling station, and that has helped business grow.

What else helped the business continue to thrive?
Chris: Customer service. Our employees don’t just point customers to some aisle but assist them with their knowledge. We’ll ask, ‘What are you working on today?’ If you have a question about a project you’re working on and want our help, we will exhaust all options before we say we can't help.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given on running your store?
Chris: When we bought the store, our father reminded us that this is more than just a business. Sometimes people come here to buy something, sometimes they come for advice, and sometimes they just want a cup of coffee and to say hi.

Bryan Yurcan is a freelance writer and former longtime Westchester resident, currently residing in Astoria, Queens, though his heart still lies in the Platinum Mile.