Dominican Businesses Hurt by Rising Rent

Cesar Gonzalez, former owner of Caliope bookstore, sells books on Dyckman Street where his store once was.

by Mea Ashley, Dominican Beat Reporter —

A bookstore that was once an intellectual hub of the Dominican community in upper Manhattan is now nothing but a table full of books sitting in front of the shuttered store.

But the closing hasn’t stopped the owner, Cesar Gonzalez, 62, from continuing to serve the community. On a recent day, he arrived with his arms so full of books that had just arrived in the mail that he could not stop to shake a customer’s hand. He can no longer afford to rent the space for his store, he said, so he sets up every day around noon in front of 170 Dyckman Street in the neighborhood of Inwood. He stays until dark.  The only time Gonzalez is not there, he said, is when the weather is bad. Other than that, he sells books year-round.

Gonzalez opened his bookstore, Caliope, at another location across Dyckman Street in 1997. Then in 2004 he moved to the bigger location at 170 Dyckman. As the rent continued to rise, it got harder to pay, he said. “It was always a hassle to get the money together for rent. It was a struggle, as it is for so many small businesses,” Gonzalez said. He said the rent would go up one hundred dollars per month every year. The main reason why he lost his space was because he waited to long to go to court, he said. He might have been able to work something out with the landlord, if he, had gone to court earlier, he said.

Since establishing his store, there have been many changes in the book industry. Numerous studies show that digital media might soon take over print and television industries.  According to the Pew Research Center, in 2010 there were 7-to-1 print losses to digital gains. Gonzalez said that these types of trends are a reality but are having only a minimal impact on his business. His clientele are not as technologically savvy, he said.  A long-time customer, Gabriel Diaz, 56, said, “A lot of people in their 50’s and 60’s, they rather read something on paper.”  Gonzalez described his clientele as book lovers from Latin American countries that feel a kinship and loyalty to him. “Some people have Kindles and Nooks or whatever but what percentage?” Gonzalez said. He alluded to his clientele having a small number of people that actually own e-readers. Then he added, “and those that do have them, there’s nothing like holding and caressing a book in your own hands.”

The book industry isn’t the only business that’s changed by online content. Rafael Batista, the owner of Quisqueya Records at 52 Sherman Avenue also says that digital media affects him but paying high rent is a common problem among small businesses in the neighborhood. When asked about the impact of online music on his business he said, “That’s one thing, but it’s all kinds of businesses, music, grocery, boutique, everybody is dying.” Batista, 59, has owned his store since 1981. The rent was $380 when he started and now he pays $3400 a month. Instead of selling just CD’s Batista also added things like luggage, candles, lottery tickets and radios to his products to help pay for the constantly rising rent.

A couple of stores down from Quisqueya Records is 5 Star Cleaners on the corner of Sherman Avenue and Thayer St. where the owner Vicky Kim, said that she pays $4,500 a month. She wouldn’t say who her landlord is. Kim, 50, can relate to Batista’s business being hurt financially. “Every year we have less profit and everything is going up– water, electricity, supplies,” she said.  “The price is getting higher but the price I charge is still the same.”  She said that she feared that if she raises the prices then the people would not want to use her services.

While those two businesses struggle to survive, Gonzalez is still hoping to re-open. According to customers, Caliope was more than a bookstore. It was a place where Dominicans could come and share their culture and debate on political issues both in New York and Dominican Republic. One long-time customer, Juan Mireno, reminisced with Gonzalez about how the bookstore was a hangout for him. “You can let out your complaints about all the things that happened in the community, around us, and back home too,” he said. Mireno moved from the Dominican Republic to New York when he was 11 years old. He is 30 now and said the bookstore was where he developed intellectually.

The cultural development was definitely a reason why Caliope was more than just a business. Gonzalez said that he tried to have a space open to the community and to their ideas. When the bookstore was open, he rented the space from Fireside Pentecostal Assembly Inc., a church that owned a block of stores on Dyckman St. The doors of the church were locked with clearly no one there to comment on the story the other day. Gonzalez continues to sells books on the street with hopes of moving back into a store next year. “I can’t fathom spending another winter beyond this one out here,” he said. His customer, Mireno added that Gonzalez was a trooper for not quitting. That title might be one many of the small business owners can embrace.


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