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Hard times for nation may mean surge in flags

Barry Kessler does not necessarily like it, but bad times for the country can sometimes mean good times for his flag and banner business.

When the economy is weak, for example, businesses try to spend their precious advertising dollars more wisely, he said. That means flags and banners, which last far longer than print, radio or television advertisements.

And then there was Sept. 11, when lines for American flags stretched out into the parking lot and around the block, Kessler said. But there was no joy in his face when he recalled that week.

"Nobody needs business that bad," he said without hesitating. "I don't need money that bad."

Kessler said his business, Five Boro Flag, Banner & Sign, gave the flags away free to the police officers and firefighters who lined up outside its Queens Village factory in the days after Sept. 11.

Ordering those thousands of flags was a fairly easy decision for Kessler, who sensed the mood of the city well enough to know that he would not be stuck with them. The situation this time, as American forces encountered the first signs of resistance in Iraq, was much less clear. Kessler and his partners, his brother Jeff and brother-in-law Alan Epstein, had not come to a decision yet.

"We talked about it," Kessler said. "I'm trying to feel the pulse."

On a recent rainy Thursday afternoon, Kessler, 46, was more concerned with yellow than with red, white or blue.

The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum had just placed an order for a giant 30-by-20-foot yellow bow to be "tied" on the bow of the decommissioned aircraft carrier. Kessler and two of his workers were wrestling with a mass of nylon in the factory basement, slowly forming it into the recognizable shape of a bow.

Five Boro Flag was founded in 1956 by the Kesslers' father, Charles, a taxi driver who, together with his brother Harold, put together enough money to buy a stock of discounted post-Korean war surplus flags. The business grew steadily, moving from its previous location in Brooklyn to its current Jamaica Avenue facility in 1970.

American flags and yellow ribbons aside, the bulk of the company's business is now corporate, Kessler said. Clients include the Mets, the New York City Marathon, SUNY Stony Brook, Dunkin' Donuts, Ford, McDonald's and Queens College. Flags and banners for most of those clients are custom-designed and made by Five Boro's 25 employees.

American flags, on the other hand, are ordered in bulk from a wholesaler - with exceptions, of course. Last year Five Boro custom-made a 50-by-90-foot American flag for Memorial Day festivities on board the Intrepid. It was the first American flag Kessler had produced in-house.

The company also does a healthy business in foreign flags. The most popular selections - this being Queens - represent Italy, Israel and Ireland, with Jamaica not far behind.

With business going so well already, Kessler was wary of taking a risk on another huge order of flags. But not too wary.

"I think Sept. 11 blew everybody's mind with the flags," Kessler said. "But there's an increase in volume. We're going to build our inventory up."

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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