Lewis of Woodhaven closes doors after 70 years

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Jeff Lewis, grandson of the store's founder, Louis Lewis, was all smiles as he rushed around and offered final farewells to customers who he said have been the backbone of his business since it opened in 1933. He characterized the closing of the store at 84-33 Woodhaven Blvd. as if he were losing a family member.

"It is like an unwilling divorce," said Lewis, who runs the variety department store with his cousin Bob.

Lewis of Woodhaven was started in 1933 by Louis Lewis, who opened the Jamaica Avenue store and then left the business to his two children, Larry and Julius. Jeff Lewis, 63, said running the variety store, which sells everything from greeting cards to dreidels, was an all-consuming task that took up between 60 and 70 hours per week.

The owner said he started working full time at the store in 1963 but had previously worked there on a part-time basis.

He said the large chunk of time required to operate the store was the major factor in his decision to close the business. A Gem Supervalue store will take Lewis of Woodhaven's place after the store was finally to close its doors Wednesday.

"Every holiday that the whole world got to celebrate, we were here working," Lewis said. "Very few people can really do what we do. We did so much."

Lewis said his business has forever been linked with the people of Richmond Hill and Woodhaven. All 30 of Lewis' employees come from the nearby area, and the department store has been a fixture on Jamaica Avenue and in Woodhaven economics, leading the way among businesses in helping to create the Woodhaven Business Improvement District, Lewis said.

Edwin Rivera, a Woodhaven resident for five years and regular Lewis customer, said he was upset to hear the store would be closing. He said he usually walks up and down Jamaica Avenue between Woodhaven Boulevard and 80th Street looking for goods, but he always ends up at Lewis' to buy what he cannot find.

"I feel bad. It is one less place to go," Rivera said.

Lewis said the family had opened another Lewis of Woodhaven about 25 years ago five blocks down from the current location near 84th Street and Jamaica Avenue. That store closed five years ago, however, because the community could not support two branches of the department store, Lewis said.

Lewis of Woodhaven built up a business selling hard-to-find and unique items not sold at other stores, Jeff Lewis said. Over the years, the store developed a niche in the borough by not participating in an industry practice known as "cherry picking," which means department stores only choose to sell the top three or five grossing items.

Instead, Lewis said, Lewis of Woodhaven decided to sell a majority of items, such as silk flowers and hardware equipment, to attract its customers. He said that strategy made Lewis' a true department store.

This dedication to selling a variety of items combined with a similar determination to serve customers led Lewis of Woodhaven to coin the motto: "If you can't find it in Lewis', it doesn't exist."

And there were only a handful of times Lewis of Woodhaven was unable to provide its customers with everything under the sun because it had shut down, according to Lewis. These were on Nov. 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and to honor the deaths of members of the Lewis family.

Other than that, though, Lewis said he was open for business and ready to provide his customers with the products they need.

"No matter what the calamity was, we were here to serve the people," Lewis said.

Lewis recalled fondly one time 20 years ago when he drove from his home in Westchester to the store during a severe blizzard and personally picked up each of his employees to open it up. He said he drove along unplowed roads in Richmond Hill and Woodhaven to remind his workers that they had a duty to work, then he told them to get in his car with him.

This attitude even prevailed during the summer's blackout, when the store remained open and employees walked around with customers using flashlights as guides to help them pick out merchandise.

So Lewis said he will be sad to close the doors of Lewis of Woodhaven, but the has had a good run operating the store during the last 40 years of his life. He said he will miss saying hello to people while walking down Jamaica Avenue on his way to work.

"I interact with these people as if they were my family."

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

Updated 10:25 am, October 12, 2011
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