By Paul Critchlow
Summer has finally arrived in the West Village, but for many residents, no season will be the same without Helen Ann Lally. The petite, effervescent proprietor of Your Neighborhood Office (YNO), the business services center at 332 Bleecker Street for nearly 25 years, closed on March 31.
Many local retail stores have vanished in recent years—mostly, victims of soaring rents and the tectonic shift to online shopping— but few will be missed as much as YNO. At its peak, the tiny space was a beehive of activity. Customers picked up or shipped packages, got laptops fixed, had manuscripts bound—and had special requests, too: moving furniture, cleaning an apartment, dog-walking, turtle-watching, waiting for Con-Edison or hand-delivering divorce papers.
“YNO was Greenwich Village’s version of Cheers,” recalls Jeanne Nicolosi. “Helen Ann knew everybody’s name. She was the genial, funny hostess, as kind to the homeless as to the many celebrities who were loyal customers.”
“Helen Ann was the beating heart of the West Village,” adds James Lecesne.
Customer service came naturally to Helen Ann. Her parents ran a deli on the boardwalk in Rockaway Beach, where Helen Ann was born 63 years ago. Along with four siblings, Helen Ann pitched in—stacking shelves, making deliveries, sweeping up. In the summers, she sold lemonade and hand-painted seashells out front.
After high school, she landed a job as a typist for New York University and fell in love with the Village. Eventually, she went to work at a marketing firm, becoming VP for Administration & Operations. When the company was bought in 1993, a friend suggested she look at a Mailbox Etc. franchise. “I realized I already knew more than they did,” she says. And so, YNO was born.
Numerous celebrities frequented YNO through the years: Rosie O’Donnell, Mariah Carey, Hugh Jackman, Ru Paul, Julianne Moore and Amy Sedaris, to name a few. Every customer got the red-carpet treatment. With a loyal and youthful staff, Helen Ann was everyone’s personal assistant.
As other independent shops gave way in the 2000’s to a tidal wave of high-end designer shops, Helen Ann’s moxie helped YNO weather soaring rents and the increasing number of “doorman” buildings in the area. She adapted to the 2008 financial crisis and recession by expanding her “concierge services.” But in the end, it was the advent of free, direct and “pre-paid” shipping by monoliths like Amazon.com that represented the final blow.
Late last year, Helen Ann realized, she had little to show for all the years; still, she’s proud. “It was a great little place,” she says. “It satisfied everybody’s needs. I loved what I did, loved the people I did it for. I just loved it.”
Today, 332 Bleecker Street is empty.
But commercial real estate in the West Village rarely sits idle for long. Recently, Brookfield Property Partners LP, the global real-estate developer, bought four retail properties with seven vacant storefronts between Bank and Christopher Streets. Brookfield expects to lure a new generation of younger brands to the area, restoring it as a destination for tourists and shoppers.
As for Helen Ann, she’s moved home to Rockaway Beach. In retirement, she’s vowed to relax, enjoy family and friends, and stroll the boardwalk. She’s in no hurry (for a change) to make any big decisions.