Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pelham Bay Home Center

(Post: English)
" John Scanlon pushed up the grate on his store, Pelham Bay Home Center, one recent frosty morning and hauled onto the sidewalk a pageant of products - bathroom sinks, cabinets, countertops and a refrigerator - in the unlikely hope of catching a passer-by in need of a large appliance. "

It was his latest no-surrender strategy, another in a series of gestures dreamed up when he should have been sleeping but instead was in bed, his mind shuffling for ideas, large and small, to outlast the recession.

A few weeks before, it had been "Curbside delivery call 718-863-7529." The sign still hangs on his storefront in Pelham Bay, an invitation to shoppers to sit in their warm, idling cars as plumbing supplies are ferried out to them.

Next to it, a warning about what Mr. Scanlon sees as the latest demon out to get him and other small-business owners on this strip of the eastern Bronx: "Watch out for meter maid $115 a ticket."

In the past year, Mr. Scanlon, 49, has laid off two workers and canceled the health insurance of a third, whose hours also were cut.

He has scaled back his own family's health plan, deputized his wife, Sherry M. Speirs Scanlon, 51, as an ambassador to scare up more business and enlisted their 27-year-old daughter, Tashel, to work as the office manager.

When he can get a decent price for his four-bedroom colonial in Westchester County, he expects to sell it.

All that, and yet the family-run store he opened on Westchester Avenue in 1991 - a mainstay of this working- and middle-class neighborhood - still teeters on the edge, propped up by signs and sidewalk showcases. Sales have fallen by more than half in the last two years.

The economy may be turning around in some parts, but not here, not now.

"We saved $100,000 to start up our business, with three kids and a mortgage," Mr. Scanlon said with a sigh after a long day of tepid sales. "Sherry worked two jobs, as a bookkeeper and waiting on tables. I worked two jobs - plumbing supply by day, handyman by night. You know how hard it is to save $100,000? And now I find myself apologizing to my family."

The Scanlons' struggles at the Pelham Bay Home Center echo through the neighborhood, and the nation.

Within one block of the Scanlons' store, seven small businesses - among them a Chinese restaurant, a fruit and vegetable market, a nail salon and a real estate office - have closed in the last year.

Many more, like Pete's Car Care across the street, are scraping by, hoping to outmaneuver the recession by reducing orders, firing employees and delaying payments.

Banks have offered little help; most will not lend to businesses short on cash, although after months of reproach, this is beginning to change.

For nearly two decades, the strapping, affable Mr. Scanlon and his unflappable, intrepid wife worked to build a solid, upwardly mobile life dispensing plumbing supplies, bathroom and kitchen fixtures, and appliances.

Even after Home Depot muscled in nearby, followed by BJ's Wholesale Club and Costco, the Scanlons held their own.

It helps that they own the store's building, which takes up half a block. "This has saved us," Ms. Scanlon said. But collecting rent from its two apartments, and from a separate four-family house they own, has recently been hit or miss.

The store flourished on a bedrock of small-business principles: impeccable service, unbeatable expertise, reasonable prices and infectious charm. Walk into the store a few times and chances are the Scanlons will ask about your mother's health or your son's new job or the Delta faucet you purchased last spring.

When a new customer stopped to look at a tub and a toilet, Mr. Scanlon popped up from his L-shaped desk, piled high with paperwork, to lay out the particulars. Then he said, conspiratorially: "My wife, she's in here with red wine and candles everywhere. I say to her, 'Are you waiting for me?' "

But this once dependable formula is no longer enough. The economy has knocked out too many customers: small contractors whose jobs dried up, building management companies, homeowners no longer looking to spruce up their homes.

Reflecting the falloff in business, the Pelham Bay Home Center in 2007 paid the city an average of $19,000 in sales tax each quarter. Last year, it averaged $9,000 a quarter. The city's parking ticket campaign and higher taxes only exacerbated the situation.

As sales collapsed, so did the Scanlon family blueprint, jumbling their emotions and sense of stability.

Suddenly, Ms. Scanlon was putting in extra hours at the store or driving, as she did one day, to Long Island City, Queens, to pick up pipe insulation material that was slightly cheaper than what was available closer to the store.

Making a Life and a Livelihood

The couple worked hard and saved harder. They opened the Pelham Bay Home Center in 1991, making it a point to dole out as many hugs as handshakes.

One customer loved Mr. Scanlon so much, he bequeathed a green shirt to him after he died. Mr. Scanlon dry-cleans it after each wearing.

As the business thrived, the Scanlons moved in 2003 from the Bronx into a spacious house with a dream kitchen on a quiet road in North Castle in Westchester County. The schools are better there. Ms. Scanlon buckled herself into a Toyota Land Cruiser. Mr. Scanlon climbed on a new Harley-Davidson.

Like many small-business owners, they prided themselves on their commitment to community and their flexibility. A longtime customer needed extra time to make payments? No problem. The leukemia society wanted a donation? Done.

But the lingering downturn has stripped away such discretion, leaving Mr. Scanlon to haggle regularly with customers who seem to mistake his store for a Turkish bazaar. The other morning a customer called, wanting to buy a water heater. Could Mr. Scanlon carry him for 90 days?

"No," he said, gritting his teeth. "We just can't do it anymore."

Dipping into a bowl of curry in the shop's small back office, Ms. Scanlon confided that the recession chipped away at her husband's ego in ways she had not expected.

He questions whether he is a good father, a good husband, a good businessman. His fuse is short.

"When he loses his temper and gets upset and is negative, that bothers me," she said. "He feels that if he can't take care of me, someone will take his wife away because they can provide better."

At the store, Mr. Scanlon is in constant motion. He might be negotiating with suppliers for better prices, searching for the right part for a customer, extolling the virtue of a particular piece of hardware.

"This toilet is good for a marriage," Mr. Scanlon told one man. "Look at it - easy on the knees and the ears."

After-hours he will sometimes visit a customer to follow up or measure a space; he proudly told his wife that one customer had hit on him. "That's because she wanted a better price," Ms. Scanlon replied.

Neighborhood Struggles

The home center's cherished longtime salesman, Tony Rivera, kept his job, but since 2008 has worked on an as-needed basis rather than a 40-hour week.

"This is the first time my pay had been cut," Mr. Rivera recalled.

Then, to cut costs, the Scanlons dropped his health insurance. Soon after, his wife got pregnant with their fourth child. The family is now on Medicaid. He managed to find part-time work as the superintendent in a nearby five-story apartment building, where his family now lives, rent-free.

In these difficult times, for Ms. Scanlon, memories of her difficult childhood serve as an antidote to creeping pessimism. When that fails, she spends Saturday mornings with Joel Osteen, the evangelical television minister.

"Business is now half what it was two and a half years ago," Ms. Scanlon said. "But it's still half."

Source: NY Times

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