The Odd Couple: Are Weird Store Combos the Only Hope for Manhattan’s Beloved Small Businesses?

The record store is considering a marriage of convenience.

The record store is considering a marriage of convenience.

New Yorkers are accustomed to sharing things; that’s the bargain of the city—the source of its energy and so many of its frustrations. We share our ceilings and walls, our commutes and our living rooms, the meals we eat and the relatively modest patches of green that constitute our nature.

Now, because of huge rent hikes throughout the city, our businesses might need to start sharing, too. New Yorkers have long mourned the disappearance of mom-and-pops, the stores and restaurants, dive bars and old haunts that gave the streets their chaotic splendor.

It has been a rough few years. The Mars bar disappeared, St. Mark’s Bookshop spent most of last year teetering on the brink of death—requiring cash transfusion after cash transfusion as it desperately sought a cheaper home. Last month the Pink Pony went down, and last week the dirge began for Bleecker Bob’s Records. The Greenwich Village icon announced that another tenant had signed the lease on its longtime home. The response turned into what could only be called caterwauling when it came to light that the new tenant would be a frozen yogurt shop.

The Observer sympathized. The Village’s plethora of frozen yogurt shops is enough to chill even the most devoted dairy fan. Seeing the writing had been on the wall—physical record stores are increasingly anachronistic and frozen yogurt is obviously ascendant—did little to ease the pain. How much frozen yogurt could the NYU kids eat? Wasn’t it available in their dining halls? And why did it have to supplant a local staple?

“Now i won’t have to go into the west village anymore .. .it’s a shame but the city is just a strip mall now full of big corps that will pay any rent to push shit on you,” was a typical response on the store’s Facebook page.

Even more confounding (if also comforting) was the news later in the week that Bleecker Bob’s and the new fro-yo joint might just team up, sharing a storefront in a bizarre, vaguely Faustian deal. Forever Frozen Yogurt was desperate for authenticity, for preserving the “neighborhood feel” it was destroying, for what might be called a soul. And Bleecker Bob’s wanted to stay, an option it obviously couldn’t afford.

“We try to keep every store unique and different from each other,” the yogurt franchise’s CEO told DNAinfo. “It’s about appreciating the neighborhood itself and the elements that are special for that neighborhood.”

The CEO went on to describe potential plans for a counter with record store inventory and “decorating the place so it carries on the design of Bleecker Bob’s.”

We shivered when we read of the possible commercial cohabitation, but another part of us wondered … rather than the endlessly ringing death knells and constant crowdsourcing campaigns, could taking a strange bedfellow be the last hope for Manhattan’s beloved small businesses?

New York has long been a merciless place for an entrepreneur, but it has only recently become a harsh place for successful, long-established businesses. Having survived for decades with devoted customer bases, many run up against rent increases of thousands of dollars without a corresponding surge in business (Pink Pony’s rent, for example, jumped from $14,000 to $20,000 a month—the main factor its owner cited in closing.)

So, what’s wrong with a model that could potentially save our neighborhood institutions? Primarily, the possibility that these mergers might preserve nothing but the brand of the former business. We could find ourselves among many zombie businesses—dead things that continue to roam the earth, luring in naive tourists who can’t tell the difference. This may well be worse than a celebrated small business dying a dignified death—a fear that Bleecker Bob’s seemed to hint at when its general manager told DNAinfo: “It would be more [like] a yogurt-slash-coffee shop with a small space for music. In theory, it might be fine.”

Not to mention that combination businesses can either be delightful or dreadful: a brilliant business ploy or a laughingstock. They can come off as completely natural combinations (the neon-lit, bulletproof glass-protected, 24-hour fried food emporiums that sell pizza, Chinese food, mozzarella sticks, hamburgers and fries: clearly a selection built from our raw, drunken desires) or charmingly wacky attempts to combine an owner’s incompatible passions. Who doesn’t love banh mí and jewelry shopping? Or a candy store with video rentals?

But they can also seem like (and often are) desperate bids to ward off death. Countless businesses have tried adding coffee shops or bars to give themselves a much-needed jolt of energy. Plenty of gyms have partnered with juice bars and the Wall Street Duane Reade has successfully integrated a frozen yogurt bar. But we have a feeling that a pairing between Forever Frozen Yogurt and Bleecker Bob’s might not be a match made in heaven. If we were Bleecker Bob’s, we’d be more inclined to take the combination recommendation of another Facebook commentator: “Buy an oven sell dollar pizza rent will never be an issue again.”

kvelsey@observer.com