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Mom & Pops Suffer Loss of St. Vincent’s

By Kathryn Adisman

We, the undersigned loyal customers of Paper Works, ask you, Jonathan West, to find a way to keep Paper Works in business at its present location. This community has already suffered a great loss in the closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital, and we cannot afford to lose another valuable asset. We need this store, and would be very grateful to you if you could help us keep our community together as much as we can by helping Paper Works. Thank you.

More than 500 signatures were gathered on a petition to keep the community store in business. The rumor was, the landlord planned to expand Walgreens’ Duane Reade into four adjacent storefronts. What the owner of Paper Works predicted when I walked into his store for the first time seemed to be coming to pass…

June 2010 “What kind of store is this?” I ask the man behind the counter, Paper Works proprietor Adam Abi-Saab.

“Variety!”

Tucked between Duane Reade and the gated storefront of Burritoville, next to Jessie’s on 7th Avenue, Paper Works depends on word of mouth and foot traffic. Its window display, which contains everything—an American flag, stationery, greeting cards, souvenirs, gifts, maps, notebooks, mugs, wrapping paper, calendars, newspapers, magazines, cigarettes—lures you in.

Adam is disappointed in the New York Times article that gave his 25-year-old store a single mention. He predicts the neighborhood will not be the same. “When you kill 4,000 workers (plus pharmacy reps, patients, visitors), you’re killing the neighborhood.” 

From his lofty perch behind the counter, Adam sees through his window: “They used to change the flags every day.” The same flags have been hanging in front of O’Toole since the hospital closed. “Nothing will make up for the loss,” he says. “You need the traffic.” The way it is now attracts homeless people. “Every day it looks a little more like a ghost town.”

Adam, who favors metaphors, says, “Imagine a five-story building with four stories missing. It’s not just us. It’s not just Jessie’s. It’s a whole community!” 

Residents come in, asking, “Can we help you?” Adam greets each customer by name. “This is the best place on Earth. A neighborhood hub.” (Thank you Leslie!) Leslie says she hadn’t realized how important the hospital was to the health of small businesses. “We’re worried.” Customer Kate: “He’s the man. He knows everyone in the Village!”

People come in just to “schmooze”—a NYC pastime! The store’s entranceway is Town Hall. Adam presides: “I’m the Mayor!” 

“I call it the café without the coffee,” says Susan, who feeds Smokey, the resident grey cat. “It’s like being in a small town without the army base,” says building resident Janet. “I live in St. Vincentville. These are My Guys (Adam, K.B., and Mike). It’s the people that make you want to come to the store.” One of the “people” is Smokey the cat! “Smokey ought to have a Twitter account!”

 Adam—he’s the center—his presence is sober and reassuring. What the shop owner does: saves newspapers; holds luggage; special orders; changes batteries; relays messages between friends; picks a person up from the hospital; attends funerals. “I don’t call them customers; I call them friends.”

“Hello, Friend,” customers greet Adam. Most don’t bother to mention what they want.  Adam hands it to them. 

A man in casual attire shows up. It’s a doctor from St. Vincent’s. This is his first time back in the neighborhood since the hospital closed. He worked there for 19 years. Where is he now? He pulls the ID hanging from his neck: Lennox Hill. But—“This is home.”  

Smokey, luxuriating on the carpet, licks me with his scaly tongue for the first time. All summer Adam waited for something to fill the void. He has five years remaining on his lease. Will a settlement be reached with the landlord? TO BE CONTINUED. 

Kathryn Adisman writes about neighborhood places and people. She has lived in the West Village since 1984.

SMOKEY, THE RESIDENT GREY CAT, stationed in aisle guards shelves at Paper Works. Photo by Susan Matula.
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