Lining the walls of West Side Movers’ small shop on 107th Street and Columbus Avenue are customer service awards and plaques from the founder’s son’s old Little League baseball team. The moving crew has included artists, playwrights, and musicians, as well as friends of the family. Since its opening, the business has grown mainly through word of mouth.
It’s the epitome of the small businesses that define the Upper West Side.
First established by Steven Fiore in his home on 96th Street in 1972, West Side Movers has kept its roots as a full-service moving store on the Upper West Side. After Fiore was diagnosed with cancer in 2003 and died six months later, his wife and son, Joanne and Matt, have worked to maintain the small-business values Steven espoused.
“His vision was that the moving industry, at that time, was very sketchy, and people would say, you know, they would be fearful that ... you move, you’re in chaos already, the movers weren’t going to show up, they were going to break your stuff,” Joanne Fiore, a psychotherapist for 25 years, said. “He wanted to create a quality service in that kind of industry.”
The store’s community feel and investment in its customers’ personal needs set it apart from the competition, she said. She hand-picks each moving crew to suit the customers’ needs and personally calls each customer the night before.
“When the guys came in, I would say, ‘OK. This woman ... she’s lived here for 30 years. She’s divorced, she can’t afford it,’” Fiore said. Her attentiveness to each customer is meant to combat what she calls the “stressful” experience of moving so that her movers can “come in with empathy.”
But small stores like West Side Movers are now a dying breed, Fiore said. According to business owners, community leaders, and residents across the Upper West Side, small mom-and-pop businesses—especially in the face of economic decline and competition from larger retailers—are struggling to stay afloat.
Despite these concerns, many hope to maintain the distinctive character of the neighborhood along Amsterdam and Columbus avenues and Broadway. If passed, a new zoning proposal from Community Board 7 will restrict store and bank frontage size along sections of these avenues—and it has gained support from property owners, tenants, and residents looking to preserve the small-scale retail experience that has historically marked the Upper West Side.
Retail changes in the past quarter-century have been “very dramatic,” according to urban studies professor David Smiley.
“There are many, many national chains that ... 25 years ago were just nowhere to be seen,” Smiley said. There were no phone stores and few banks, and many more hardware stores, restaurants, small food stores, and bodegas—all of which were “owned by the person behind the counter.”
Smiley attributes the increase in chain stores, such as Rite Aid and Duane Reade, to both a pattern of redevelopment and gentrification on the Upper West Side and customers’ increased desire for convenience.
“Now, essentially, you can buy most of your stuff in a Rite Aid,” Smiley said.
Rhea Vogel, who rents land along Amsterdam Avenue to two neighborhood businesses, La Toulousaine Bakery and Amsterdam Tavern, agreed that big-box stores undermine the neighborhood’s character.
When big stores close at night, “people aren’t passing by, people aren’t walking by. It’s kind of desolate.”
Vogel, whose father owned a laundromat, is motivated to preserve the neighborhood feel that she grew up with. According to Vogel, neighborhoods like the Upper West Side that are defined by businesses like restaurants, hair salons, all-night delis, and laundromats are like “small towns in the middle of a large city.”
Protective zoning such as the new CB7 proposal is necessary, Vogel said, because not every landlord has the “roots to a neighborhood” that she has. Some landlords may be more interested in maximizing short-term profits by leasing land to larger chain stores which can “gobble up half the block.”
Many CB7 members have rallied behind the new zoning proposal, which passed at a Feb. 15 committee meeting and will be presented to the full board, which oversees the Upper West Side, next week. Supporters hope the restrictions—which include a 40-foot storefront limit on sections of Amsterdam and Columbus avenues and a 25-foot bank frontage limit on sections of Amsterdam and Columbus avenues and Broadway—will preserve the neighborhood’s historically active street life.
“This measure not only responds to the community ... but also responds to the small businesses in the community,” former CB7 chair Mel Wymore said. “This is a resolution that works for everybody.”
Unlike previous efforts to restrict storefront size, this one was uniquely suited to its mission of protecting small businesses in the neighborhood, current CB7 chair Mark Diller said. While a zoning proposal previously enacted on 86th Street tried and failed to preserve a specific type of commerce, this rezoning had the more general goal of maintaining street life.
“We’re trying to preserve a more generalized vibrancy,” Diller said. “I think it’s a terrific benefit for our community,” he later added.
Although Diller told Spectator that there was “robust support” for the legislation among CB7 members, he said the plan is not without its detractors.
Board member Andrew Albert believes the legislation could impose undue and artificial restrictions upon businesses and make them wary of opening in the neighborhood.
The rezoning could end up “sort of freezing the West Side in time,” Albert said.
Large stores are “not a necessarily bad thing, as everyone is trying to paint it,” he said. “You want a mix in a neighborhood.”
Peter Arndtsen, president of the Columbus Amsterdam Business Improvement District, said that overall, landlords should be happy with the proposal.
“Our area has continued to attract small businesses and restaurants that bring people into our neighborhood,” Arndtsen said. “And I look forward to that continuing.”
Smiley said that, under the new proposal, the smaller local store-owners with less capital might have a better chance to start a business.
It could “put the brakes on the inevitable process of economic turnover by making the playing field a little different,” Smiley said.
Despite what many perceive as threats to small business, new mom-and-pops continue to spring up on the Upper West Side. In January, Jean-Francois Gatorze, a Toulouse, France native, and his wife, Nora, opened La Toulousaine Bakery on Amsterdam Avenue between 106th and 107th streets.
The small bakery—whose walls are adorned with photos of Toulouse and potted plants—has only three tables and a few window seats. Vogel, who leased the building to the Gatorzes, turned down offers from many potential tenants, keeping the lot vacant for over a year until she found a business that would add to the neighborhood’s character.
“I had a vision for what I wanted in that space,” Vogel said. “And I was going to wait until the right person came along.”
Realtor David Chkheidze worked with Vogel to find the right client, donating furniture to La Toulousaine.
“It has to be fit. It’s like a marriage,” Chkheidze said. “It’s like a marriage to community, and the retail, and you know, ‘I have a vision.’”
Vogel is optimistic about La Toulousaine’s future in the neighborhood, given that it is the only bakery within a few blocks, and is excited about the Gatorzes’ up-and-coming presence.
“They’re such sweet people and working so hard,” Vogel said. “Everything they do there is so delicious.”
Some small businesses are even expanding. The Amsterdam Tavern, on 106th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, has successfully operated as a neighborhood pub for three years. Managing partner Mark Harford will be opening a new small “upscale American gastropub” on Broadway and 106th Street called Five Lamps this spring.
Harford, who has lived on the Upper West Side for 12 years, plans to make Five Lamps distinctly different in ambiance from the Amsterdam Tavern, but equally neighborhood-oriented.
“We’re very much small-business,” Harford said. “We want to stay that way.”
According to Harford, chain stores and banks detract from street life and drive up rent prices, so he’s thankful for the zoning proposal.
“It’s more about protecting the character of the neighborhood and protecting people who have been in business for so long,” Harford said.
The state of the economy has taken a toll on business.
“Since the downturn of the economy, a lot of people want to do this as cheaply as possible,” Joanne Fiore said. Larger movers can cost $500 to $1,000 less, she said, and “although we’ve lowered our prices, there’s a certain amount [past which] we can’t lower.”
But the Fiores ultimately feel that, despite economic pressures, customers will continue to value the personal experience and character of a mom-and-pop.
“It’s a good vibe to be able to see clients that we moved just walking around on the street, and I think that’s, you know, part of what makes us special,” Matt Fiore said.