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Forest Hills businesses hurting, not crippled

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For Forest Hills store owners like Nick Leodis and William Bentz, the turmoil that has rocked Wall Street has yet to make their own lives financially difficult.

Still, while residents continue to traverse Austin Street despite tight financial times, Forest Hills shop owners said the shaky economy has made an impact on shoppers, who have cut back from doling out the kind of money they once did.

“People used to spend $40, $50 on flowers, and now they’ll spend $10 to $15 less,” said Leodis, who owns Studio Arts Florist at the corner of 71st Avenue and Austin Street. “But people are still buying from us, so that is good.”

Bentz reiterated the flower shop owner’s sentiment, saying his store, The Wine & Spirit Company of Forest Hills, has continued to see a steady stream of customers.

“The economy doesn’t hit us as much as it hits other people like the restaurant owners,” Bentz said. “The reason we make out is because people stop going to restaurants, but they want to have nice dinners, so they’ll buy wine.”

Leslie Brown, president of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, said: “Austin Street is thriving, but I know stores have to be careful because people are nervous and aren’t spending in the same manner that they were.”

“We had one of our big street fairs last Sunday and the membership that participated in the fair said it was their best fair ever,” Brown said. “But that’s also an indication that people were out looking for bargains.”

Several stores have shut their doors on Austin Street, and Leodis attributed the handful of empty shop windows to a difficult economy.

“I’ve seen about 10 small stores go out of business in the past year,” Leodis said. “Now there are five or six empty stores. In the past four or five years, when the smaller stores have gone out of business, the big chain stores will come in. That upsets the other small business owners because they lose customers.”

A store owner for the past 16 years in Forest Hills — first on Queens Boulevard and more recently on Austin Street — Bentz said he is not happy with the increase in chain stores sprouting on Austin Street.

“Fifteen million banks don’t help the merchants here because they don’t bring customers in,” Bentz said. “There’s some great stores on Austin Street, but there’s a lot of deadbeat stores, too, like these banks. These chains can come in because they can pay the high rents.”

Brown, however, said the chain stores often add to the area and can help to draw people to the area.

“We’re very excited we’re getting Fox’s of Brooklyn,” Brown said. “It’s a very high−end discount designer women’s store and it’s coming very soon. That’s going to be a big draw to Forest Hills. There’s only a couple of them, so this will be a prime area for people from all over, including Long Island, to come.”

For Stacy Canote, manager of Concrete Jungle on Austin Street, whatever draws people to the area is a good thing, though she, too, has not seen a “big change” in her customers’ spending habits.

“We get a lot of teenagers in here, and they still spend money because they don’t have to pay for things like mortgages,” said Canote, whose shop specializes in skateboards and urban street wear. “I did have one teenager tell me his mom told him he couldn’t spend $600 on a jacket because of the economy, but he could spend $300.”

Reach reporter Anna Gufstason by e−mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

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