Health food store changes with area

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To survive in the rapidly changing neighborhood of Hunters Point, Shaker Husein has learned to be quick on his feet.

"It's like a volcano," he said. "People coming in, moving out all the time."

Husein, 40, opened the Crystal Health Food Store, at 47-25 Vernon Blvd. in March 1998, in the hopes that the area's growing population of young professionals would seek out organic food and natural health remedies. While the yuppie business has not quite lived up to his expectations, Husein said he has managed to do well using good old-fashioned customer service.

It began with a notebook. When the store opened, Husein kept a notebook in the store and asked his customers to write down whatever products they wanted him to carry.

"We search and get it, sometimes within 48 hours," he said. "Once I know who the distributor is, it's easy to get."

The result is a bright, colorful store stocked with dozens of different organic and natural foods, vitamins and natural remedies. Bins of organic green peas, millet, couscous and other grains line one wall, and hundreds of bottles of herbal and homeopathic medicines line shelves behind the cashier's counter. Along the aisles, shoppers can find natural shampoos and dried foods.

Husein recommends different products for customers with ease, but that knowledge comes from two years of hard work, learning the different products and what they do. Before opening the store, he had run a pizzeria in Brooklyn and taught math at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

"That's a 180-degree change, I know," he said.

Husein, a native of the West Bank in Palestine, had studied computer science in college there, but he left to escape the political turmoil of the 1970s. Student strikes often disrupted the universities, so he decided to come to the United States to finish his degree in computer science.

"I figured computers was a new field," he said.

But once he started working, Husein said he realized it did not suit his outgoing personality.

"I'm a public relations kind of person, not a machine," he said.

So Husein got a master's degree in math and started teaching at the college. He spent nine years in academia, but during the last two years, he invested in a pizzeria in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. The pizza business, departmental politics at the college and too little time to visit his family in the West Bank had taken their toll, he said.

"I lost a lot of relatives while sitting here," he said.

He left the college altogether in 1994 to run the pizza business.

"It was kind of hard, but I didn't hesitate to make that decision," he said. "If you have your health, you'll always find work."

But as the neighborhood changed, Husein said he began scoping around for something new. One of his family friends had opened a health food store in Williamsburg, and one of the store's suppliers suggested they look at Hunters Point, which was attracting the same sorts young professionals and artists who have revitalized Williamsburg.

For a year, Husein and his partner studied the neighborhood to test the salesman's claims.

"We used to visit the area for a year, driving around, walking around," he said. "We were noticing who would come in and out of the subway for almost a year. In my country I would have been good for military intelligence."

With two years in business behind him, Husein said he is cautiously optimistic about the future. The new business allows him to travel home twice a year, but Husein said business from City Lights, a luxury apartment building on the East River waterfront, had not generated as much business as he expected.

Developers are preparing to break ground on the next apartment building, and Husein said he hopes this next residential development will boost his and other new businesses in the area.

"We're hoping that will happen," he said.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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