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Washington Mutual opens bank in Bayside

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A new Washington Mutual bank branch quietly opened for business Feb. 18 in the old Bayside Movie Theatre building on Bell Boulevard as part of an expansion into Queens planned for this year.

“We’re looking at the market as a whole, and this is an area we feel we would like to serve,” bank spokesman Derek Aney said of Bayside. “We tend to focus on retail areas. We like to be where people shop and do their regular business.”

The Seattle, Wash.-based Washington Mutual, founded in 1889, is a publicly traded company that provides consumer and business banking, home loans and insurance services in more than 2,500 offices around the country.

Banks are nothing new to Bell Boulevard. The commercial strip already houses a Citibank, Bank of New York, Chase and two North Fork Banks, to name a few. But since Washington Mutual began expanding into New York City last summer, it has designed its branches not to look like a traditional bank.

Aney said his company acquired Dime Savings Bank in May and converted many of them to Washington Mutuals. The company expanded first in Manhattan and plans to focus on the outer boroughs this year, Aney said.

In Queens, Washington Mutual operates at least seven locations, including a home loan center on Northern Boulevard in Bayside.

The new Bayside location features a concierge near the bank entrance who greets customers and asks what they need, then notifies the bank staffer who can help the customer.

Instead of a row of tellers stationed behind a wall, bank staff who can handle transactions from simple withdrawals to home loans use kiosks connected electronically to cash pickup stations.

Customers receive a receipt for their transaction with a temporary PIN number that they type into the cash pickup kiosk, which automatically counts out and dispenses the money.

The idea, said Aney, is to free bank staffers from having to man a cash drawer so they can walk around helping customers.

The concierge station also features a kids’ section with toy cash registers and children’s books on managing money.

That, combined with the low lighting, warm colors and jazzy music, makes for what Aney calls “a much more retail experience.”

“It allows people to interact in a much more friendly and open manner,” said Aney.

Judy Limpert, president of the Bayside Business Association and branch manager of the North Fork Bank locations on Northern and Bell boulevards, said the opening of Washington Mutual on Bell is “a good thing.”

“It says we’re a viable business strip,” said Limpert.

Brian Vagell, manager of the new Washington Mutual, said that despite being weeks away from the bank’s official grand opening celebration, business has been very good.

“We haven’t done any sort of publicity or marketing yet, so surprisingly, we’re getting a lot of business,” said Vagell.

The branch’s grand opening, scheduled for April 4-5, will feature entertainment, food, drink, and money prizes, said Vagell.

Washington Mutual plans to open branches in Astoria and Jackson Heights in May, said Aney.

The Bayside Movie Theatre, which got a Love My Shoes last fall, is set to feature a wide variety of other retail stores.

A Curves gym, an acupuncturist, a dentist’s office, a Mailboxes Etc., a health food restaurant, and 39 East, an upscale fusion eatery from the owners of Papazzio and Erawan, are all under construction.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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