Junction Boulevard biz owners discuss struggles

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In the very back of his cluttered and narrow Junction Boulevard shop, Enzo Biassi was making a floral wreath. He grabbed tall flowers from a glass-doored refrigerator and snipped off their long stems in one fluid motion.

“I’m very busy,” he said, without looking up.

But Biassi, like many of the merchants along this crowded commercial corridor of Queens, is not nearly busy enough. “Business is very bad right now,” said Biassi, who has been selling flowers from the same storefront known as Biassi Plants and Flowers at 35-51 Junction Blvd. for 30 years. “It’s not easy for us.”

Junction Boulevard bisects the multi-ethnic neighborhoods of Elmhurst and Corona. Constantly shifting populations, rapidly rising rents and a recent influx of chain stores have left longtime merchants scrambling to stay in business. The recession has only compounded what was already a financially tenuous situation.

“It’s not a good time,” said John Ferreira, president of the Junction Boulevard Merchants Association. In the 34 years that Ferreira and his brother have owned and managed La Casa de Ropa Interior, a lingerie and maternity store, he estimated that their rent has increased tenfold. Profits have not kept pace.

“This is not Fifth Avenue,” he said. “This is Junction Boulevard, Queens.”

On the main retail strip between Roosevelt and 35th avenues, small shops like Sunny Gift and Noveda’s Variety Store at 37-11 Junction Blvd. stand shoulder to shoulder with mega-chains like Payless Shoes, Rite Aid and McDonald’s. A For Rent placard hangs across the sign for what was once Fantastic Wig & Gift Shop.

“When we first started out, there were a lot more mom-and-pops,” said Ferreira. “Over the years, because of the rents being so high, you get a lot of the chains.”

Michael Battino owns Battino’s Fashion Club, an independent clothing store at 37-74 Junction Blvd. that specializes in menswear. He said business has been in steady decline since Sept. 11, 2001.

Battino has tried to keep up with the rapid pace of change by adding a women’s department, learning Spanish and stocking styles they do not sell across the street for half the price.

But he said the past few years have been the most difficult since he first opened in 1981.

“The neighborhood’s changing,” he said. “It went from Italian to Colombian to Dominican to Mexican, Ecuadorian, El Salvadorian.”

Battino was born to a Greek family in the United States, but these days, most of his interactions with customers are in Spanish. “When in Rome, do as the Romans. When on Junction, speak Spanish,” he said.

The shifting demographics of the neighborhood have left some business owners struggling to serve the needs of their ever-changing customer base, but Battino said that many changes — like the decline of drugs in the area — are positive ones. And foot traffic on Junction Boulevard is steady — he just wishes more passers-by would come into his shop.

“You have a lot of hard workers, but I don’t know what they do with their money,” Battino said. “Maybe they’re afraid to spend it. Or they’re sending it over to their own country.”

In a quiet, sweet-smelling corner of his flower shop, surrounded by plants, Biassi was grudgingly hopeful.

“I don’t think it could get any worse. It just can’t,” he said. “There’s only one way now: It has to get better.”

Updated 6:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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