What Happens to Subway Businesses When a Station Closes?

Photo: Anna and Jordan Rathkopf

The Cutting Den, a cozy neighborhood hair salon, first opened in 1926 in a subway arcade beneath the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights. But despite nearly a century in business, it is familiar mostly to the small set of people who regularly pass through the corridor on their way to the Clark Street subway station. In fact, you probably wouldn’t know any of the seven businesses there if you don’t frequent the 2/3 stop. And since the MTA closed the station on November 3, basically no one is going there at all — leaving businesses like the Cutting Den on the brink of ruin.

Clark Street station is somewhat of an anomaly in the system since the only way to get to the 2/3 platform is to ride one of three elevators at the end of the passage. But the station is closed because 100 years after being installed, the elevators were all in dire need of replacement. Initially, the MTA had proposed an incremental option, for which crews would work on one elevator while keeping the station open, but ultimately it decided on a full closure, which will last until the spring. To complicate matters, the MTA can’t offer rent concessions to the small businesses because the corridor isn’t its property but part of the privately owned hotel building (which is today co-ops and some student dorms). Realty Crown Management, which actually collects the rent (insomuch as it’s being paid), says it’s working with tenants on “a case-by-case basis” and isn’t rushing to evict anyone. But back rent is piling up, and some owners say they’re likely to close before the station ever reopens. Curbed checked in with five businesses on how they are managing — or not — to make ends meet.

Photo: Anna and Jordan Rathkopf

“I came here in 1976 from Pakistan. Working at this newsstand was my first job and then eventually I bought the business. Usually, I’m busy all the time. It was a stream of customers in and out. Now, nothing. It’s a ghost town — less than a hundred people for the whole day. I have nothing to do. I just clean all day and watch CNN. People would get off the train and they’d buy a snack, something to drink — and that’s all gone. It’s 11 a.m. and I’ve only had one customer so far today: a lady in the neighborhood who bought a pack of Marlboro Reds. There’s no business for coffee, no businesses for soda, no business for candy — only newspapers and cigarettes. Every week, I’d have to put in an order for soda. It’s been five weeks, and I still haven’t had to. We open at 6 a.m. and used to close at 11 p.m. Now we close at 6 p.m.; if it’s really slow, we close at five. Before all of this, we’d make $1,500 to $2,000 on a good day. Now, I just make $100 some days. It’s nothing. My rent is $4,500, and I haven’t been able to pay since the station closed, and the pandemic has been hard with less people on the subway overall. I owe a lot to the landlord: $40,000. I’ve used my savings. I’ve borrowed money from my family. I have a lot of sleepless nights. I’m doubtful that I’ll be here when the station reopens.”

“My grandfather opened this business in 1926. I’m the third generation, and I’ll be the final act. There’s a lot of history here. Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, James Dean — my father cut all their hair here. Truman Capote used to come in three times a week; he’d come in for a shave, facial, and mudpack. He gave one of my workers an autographed, first-edition copy of In Cold Blood. One of the Ramone brothers, Marky Ramone, used to come in with his wig, and we’d give it a little trim. That’s what we do: We give good haircuts, and we tell good stories.

My regulars mostly live in the neighborhood, but with COVID, a lot of them left. They work from their computers in Long Island, Pennsylvania, Jersey, and they’re just not around. They’re staying in their summer places. Now with the station closed, our business is down about 70 percent. I cut five or six people’s hair a day when I used to cut 22 or 23. I’ve been paying 20, 25, 30 percent of the rent, which is up to $5,100 — paying what I can. Our landlord has been very accommodating; I’m going to meet with him next week and see if we can work something out. But if I can’t figure something out, I’ll retire and that’ll all be gone.”

Photo: Anna and Jordan Rathkopf

“I’ve had to throw out a lot: eggs that have expired, flowers that are dying. Most of my customers come from the subway, and usually about 700 people would come in a day. Now it’s more like 250. But my rent is $15,000. I have to pay five workers. My electric bill is $3,000. Garbage is $750. There’s the phone bill, too. All these expenses. I got a PPP loan that I’ve been using, but there’s not much left. Just look at the place now: It’s lunchtime and it’s dead. Most of my customers now are students and the MTA workers who get sandwiches. Look at my shelves: They’re mostly empty. I’m trying to use up all the stock in the basement before I buy anything. There’s also this dust coming in from construction — that’s why I don’t use the flower stand in the station anymore. We clean every day, and every other day the dust is back.

I’ve been here for 23 years. Before the pandemic, I never missed rent. I told my lawyer, “I want to get out of here.” We’re talking to the landlord because I owe a lot. I owe about $350,000. The coronavirus was really bad for business, and with this closure, it’s even worse. My lawyer sent them a letter, and the landlord wrote back, “Don’t move.” They want to work something out where I pay another $3,000 on top of the $15,000 each month to pay what I owe. So the rent would be basically $18,000. How do I pay that? How can I pay that when I can’t pay the $15,000 rent now? I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I’m worried they’re going to try and evict me, so I’d rather just leave myself.”

Photo: Anna and Jordan Rathkopf

“We opened less than a year ago, and with COVID and people out of town over the summer, things started slow but gradually picked up. We started really hitting our stride in September and October with a steady flow of people and then on November 3, the station closed. The afternoons are so much slower now than they were before — because people aren’t, you know, coming home from work and grabbing coffee. We’re still busy in the morning from like 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. from people in the neighborhood. The MTA workers drink a lot of coffee. They’re here just as early as we are. It’s that loss of afternoon traffic that’s been really hitting us. There’s quite a few regular faces I haven’t seen since back in November. We definitely get some neighborhood folks who say they’re coming out of their way to support us. They’ll buy a bag of coffee on top of their order. A lot have been relieved to see that we’re still here.

Sometimes on my closing shifts in the afternoons, I might see one customer. I just read when that happens. I’m reading The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow, right now; it’s an anthropology book. It’s like 700 pages, so I just keep it here. It doesn’t feel great keeping busy like that — it feels like everyone’s time is wasted.”

“I actually never intended to sell rugs. I live a few blocks from the station, and I discovered the location a couple of years ago. I’m a travel agent, and I planned on opening a travel agency to organize tours to Morocco, where I come from, but then the pandemic hit and there was no travel. So the idea came to me, since I have connections in Morocco, that I’d contact people who make the rugs by hand there and temporarily sell them out of the space. This business is me adapting to survive the pandemic.

I haven’t made a single sale since early November. I would be in the store for hours by myself and said to myself, There’s literally no reason for me to stay here. So that month, I put up a sign that said “By appointment only” and left my number. In three months, I have had one call for an appointment. A man called me, I went to the store, and he never showed up or called me back. The business is just gone. I’m paying the rent; the bills are all out of pocket now. I used to pay $1,300. Now, because of the pandemic, the landlord lowered it to $800. Most of the time, I’ve been at home with my wife and my husky. I’m afraid to look for work because I’m worried I’ll be out and won’t be able to make an appointment if someone does call.”

Candice Cearley

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