For many residents of Electchester and Hillcrest, the initials CVS could now easily stand for “Community Versus Substitution,” as they, along with elected officials, try to prevent the national pharmacy from taking over a space long occupied by their neighborhood Key Food supermarket.
A rally was held last week outside the store at 164-05 69 Ave. in Flushing, involving several dozen area residents and community leaders, including Assemblymen Michael Simanowitz (D-Flushing) and Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) and Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows).
The building’s landlord, Vita Realty, intends to let Key Food’s lease, which expires in four years, lapse in favor of the pharmacy.
“The landlord has the right to a business decision. We can as consumers let him know we are not happy. We’re going to encourage our neighbors not to go” to CVS, should the change take place, Simanowitz told the crowd.
Lancman, who lives nearby and shops at the store, stressed Key Food’s popularity by challenging all listeners to “come here on a Friday afternoon and try to get a parking space in the lot.”
Stavisky said, “I’m here to support the community and to send a strong message to CVS — go some place else. The people here need a place to shop, plain and simple.”
David Mandell, who has owned the supermarket with his brother since 2004, said, “The banks love CVS because it’s a public company. A lease guaranteed by CVS versus a private individual” is preferable to a landlord.
“It’s a security matter. If I sold the store to a new Key Food, the landlord would be worried he wouldn’t be as good a tenant,” Mandell said.
Mandell said CVS, which could not be reached for comment, is offering him financial incentives to vacate early.
“We don’t really want to,” he said. “If we know there’s no hope, we would leave” before the current lease expires.
What he would prefer to do is expand his store to the end of the block, supplanting the Corner Deli, a popular luncheonette that is also being forced out by the landlord.
“We’re hoping the landlord will make a deal with us,” Mandell said.
The landlord, did not return calls for comment by press time.
Peter Au, the manager of the luncheonette, a staple in the neighborhood for years which has been operating without a lease since last February, said he would love to stay given the opportunity. “It’s impossible to run a business not knowing how much longer you’ll be around,” Au added.
For many of the area’s residents, Key Food represents more than a place to shop. According to several who attended the rally, it has become the area’s social center.
Jesse Gitnik, who has lived nearby since 1957 and — remembers that, before Key Food moved in, the location was home to another food store, Cracker Barrel — said, the site “has been the center of this neighborhood for 55 years. It’s our beloved food store. People congregate here. Everyone knows everyone. They open in the worst blizzards, worst hurricanes. You can depend on Key Food opening up.
“My parents are in their 90s. Their big event is going to Key Food two or three times a week,” Gitnik added.
And the area, according to many at the rally, is already glutted with drug stores, including one directly across the street from Key Food.
“The convenience of getting CVS is far outweighed by the inconvenience of losing Key Food,” said Elliott Steiner, who has also been in the area for more than five decades.
Steiner said if he is forced to walk about three blocks away for food shopping at the nearest shopping center, he would buy his drugs at one of the pharmacies he would pass on the way.
“I would take my business there. I will make sure not to come here,” he said.
Nora Dessi, who has lived in the area since 1978, said, “CVS seems to want to take over the world. They want to put all the little people out of business. I won’t go in the damn place.”
The community is home to many union workers, a fact not lost on Gennaro. “Landlord beware!,” he said. “You have to understand what Local 3 and Local 1500 are all about,” noting that they would consider picketing or boycotting a non-union store.
He and others also complained that the closing would be particularly hard on the many area seniors.
“Seniors who have lived in the Electchester and Hillcrest communities for decades rely on this Key Food for fresh fruits and vegetables,” Gennaro said. “Losing this supermarket would be burdensome on the elderly, disabled and anyone unable to walk additional distances to find another one. And with the proliferation of drug stores in the area, what will a CVS add to the community? It’s time to think about the residents —and consumers — in this neighborhood and retain this valuable business.”