The stores that define a community, the bakery, deli, butcher shop, pharmacy, beauty parlor and laundromat, are long gone. Even worse, the buildings remain empty, their awnings torn and signs faded.
To concerned residents and merchants of Kew Gardens Hills, this is the beginning of the end for a formerly vibrant strip of stores on what is known as the “Kissena Curve,” on the boulevard between 71st and 72nd avenues.
The latest store to announce its closing may be the most shocking because of its size. National Wholesale Liquidators takes up the entire 71st Avenue block. Its smaller furniture and mattress store on the next block has already closed.
“The situation gets worse every year and it looks awful,” said Pat Dolan, president of the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association. “It makes the area look abandoned.”
Dolan, like other civic leaders, merchants and residents, heard rumors about the landlord’s plans for the future. But none could be confirmed by them or this newspaper. Calls to a number posted on one of the empty stores went to David Minkin Real Estate in Rego Park. A receptionist refused to give out any information on the future of the location or about the owner.
The Kissena property is owned by Pelcorp, a real estate firm in Palm Beach, Fla. It is headed by Prescott Lester, whose great-grandfather was a Queens builder. Lester is related to David Minkin and succeeded him in business.
When the Chronicle called, Lester refused to discuss the Kissena holdings, saying: “I can’t talk about that now.”
Shirley Weinstein, president of the Mid-Queens Community Council, lives near the shopping area and is not happy with what she sees. “It looks like hell,” Weinstein said. “It’s a horror to me.”
She has heard that the owner wants to put in a big-box store such as Costco on the two blocks, but that it won’t happen for a few years.
Ken Cohen, president of the Flushing Suburban Civic Association, has lived in the area since 1952 and is very concerned about the deterioration of the Kissena Curve. “It’s gone from quality stores to more independent types, not of the same caliber,” Cohen said.
The rumor he’s heard involves razing the two blocks and building apartments with stores on the first floor. Cohen plans to ask local elected officials to get involved and find out what’s happening.
“It’s very depressing in such a diverse community with low to high incomes,” he said. “The lack of stores encourages people to shop on Long Island at big-box stores.”
Cohen believes the area is becoming a nuisance, since it’s not maintained, and not safe at night.
Alma Smith, an area resident since 1969, was buying lottery tickets recently at one of the remaining stores on the block, Cards and Gifts at 72-05 Kissena Blvd. “I’m not happy seeing all these stores close,” Smith said. “It’s terrible at night. I’m scared to come out.”
The card shop owner, Ashok Patel, and his son, Rachik, who helps run the business, say they can’t get in touch with the landlord. Their lease expires in two years.
The Patels say the empty shops “are terrible for business” because they keep potential customers away. The Patels have owned the store for 30 years and have had to alter what they sell over time to stay solvent; it’s more like a convenience store today.
Steve Afzali runs Valentino’s, a successful Italian pizzeria and restaurant at 71-47 Kissena Blvd. His family has owned the business there for 50 years, and they recently remodeled and expanded.
Afzali says Valentino’s is doing a lot of deliveries to help pay the bills. “The empty stores are not good for business,” he said. “We have a loyal following and people always have to eat, but for new businesses, forget it.”
He’s noticed a downturn on the strip over the last two years, although other merchants say it started about eight years ago. “It’s a shame because it’s a nice neighborhood with people from all walks of life,” Afzali said.
The merchants interviewed were reluctant to talk about the landlord, who they said is impossible to reach, but they fear their leases won’t be renewed.
National Wholesale Liquidators is expected to close sometime in February because of financial problems. It’s part of a chain often compared to a dollar store, hardware store and a small supermarket and several locations are closing due to the economy.
On a recent Thursday, a few customers were perusing the aisles looking for a bargain in spices, flip flops and car air fresheners. Despite going-out-of-business signs advertising large discounts, there didn’t seem to be much interest.
Still open on the Kissena Curve are a Chinese take-out restaurant, a health supply store, a men’s and boys’ clothing store, a food market and a pet shop. A barber shop remains open near the parking lot. About 11 stores are vacant, including some double-size.
Dolan wonders if some of the leases are month-to-month and that’s why some of the tenants are nervous to talk.
Smith, counting her lottery winnings, misses the coffee shop, pharmacy, bakery and fish market. Others remember a shoe store, an optometrist, a kosher butcher shop, a dry cleaner and a Rainbow clothing store for girls and women.
Weinstein has alerted Community Board 8 to watch out for any development project, but the district manager has heard nothing about future plans. “It’s a complete question mark,” Weinstein said of the owner’s plans. “I am disturbed by how it is now.”