Retail in LIC remains a puzzle: instead of getting new stores and shopping opportunities we are getting more of the same, often within a one- or two-block-radius. Nail salons, yoga places, dry cleaners seem to be the dominant categories of retail use. Pictured above and below you have the new home of another nail salon that will be opening up at 48-13 Vernon Boulevard. The previous tenant, an insurance agency recently moved around the block into new quarters on Jackson Avenue.
48-13 Vernon Boulevard was marketed during the financial crisis by Rick Rosa (now of Douglas Eliman). The previous owner was an estate with eight different heirs, half of whom wanted to sell while two parties wanted to keep the property. The remaining two heirs wanted to wait. At that time, the two empty upstairs rental units of the 3700 square foot building were in desperate need of a complete renovation. The units on each floor were rather small and the stairs made it difficult to come up with a more intelligent lay out. As far as one prospective buyer remembers, Rosa was marketing the building at that time at a ridiculous asking price of over $2,000,000.
In August 2010, the building sold for a more reasonable $1,295,000 to a Flushing-based entity called East River Assets Corp. which quickly filed for the necessary gut renovation including new kitchens, new bathrooms, new plumbing, new dry walls, etc. at an estimated cost of over $100,000.
This year, the ground floor retail space was vacated by the State Farm insurance agency and is in the process of being turned into -another- nail salon. This is puzzling given the proximity of at least another four nail salons within a block or two on Vernon Boulevard, 48th Avenue, and Center Boulevard. The same density of retail establishments of one kind can be observed for dry cleaners. As reported earlier this month, O.K. Cleaners has taken over the space of the Verizon Agency near the corner of Vernon Boulevard and 48th Avenue – despite the fact that there are another three existing dry cleaners and laundry facilities within a block or two.
How can one make sense of the decision of these small business owners to join an already crowded field? How can the additional nail salons and dry cleaners not cannibalize the revenue base of the existing establishments of the same kind?
One factor might be that the unique demographic structure of gentrified LIC as a bedroom community for many residents will support a narrow range of often cash-based businesses catering exactly to the needs of that demographic: getting fit and in shape for well paying Manhattan-based office jobs that require clean and crisp office attire and “the works.” The owners of nail salons and dry cleaners often own several outfits in geographic proximity. They might simply know that they will find enough customers for their business for whom convenience and proximity to their high-rise residence might be the reason to chose one dry cleaner over another.
Another piece of the puzzle might be that labor costs might be low or they might be variable costs instead of fixed costs. The main employee at the salon or cleaner might be the owner or a trusted relative himself while other employees might be paid based on the revenues they generate.
What we are left with is a retail landscape that is heavy on dry cleaners, nail salons, and yoga places (and, of course, excellent Italian restaurants). Restaurants like Bella Via, Minetta’s, Testaccio, and Manducatis Rustica seem to prove the point that a concentration of restaurants with similar offerings might coexist in a neighborhood with a reputation for excellent Italian food. According to at least one owner, the predominant proportion of the patrons hail from other parts of Queens and not from LIC. It might be that people make the trip from nearby Brooklyn and other parts of Queens to Long Island City as a destination if they are looking for a good meal in the old hood.
But getting your shirts laundered or your nails done seems to be a different animal. The purchasing decision is primarily based on convenience and proximity. Maybe the concentration of these almost identical businesses tells us that the needs of many residents are similarly narrow: work late, grab a slice of pizza on the way home, work out in the gym, get your nails done, drop off your shirts, check your e-mail, go to bed, take a shower, rush to work. Repeat. Seen that way, the narrow retail range would reflect the narrow range of residents’ and consumers’ needs.
But the puzzle remains: why should it be easier for the fourth or fifth dry cleaner to earn the money to pay sky-high LIC rents than for the first hardware store or the only shoe repair shop and locksmith?