By Ron Leir
Even Steven Shalom, who has run Discount City in Kearny since 1992, concedes that sprucing up the Passaic Ave. mall with BJ’s Wholesale Club as a new anchor store, will be “a good thing for the town.”
At the same time, though, he feels “it’s a shame that I have to pay.”
That’s “pay,” in the sense that he’s got to leave the place he’s known as his home away from home, commuting back and forth from his actual domicile in Long Branch, seven days a week, for 22 years.
Shalom is one of a row of several small retail businesses that have managed to carve out a niche for themselves in the old Congoleum- Nairn linoleum factory (where torpedo parts and grenades were made during WWII) on the eastern side of Passaic Ave.
But, as of July 31, they’ll all be just a memory as the mall’s owner, DVL Holdings, with offices in New York and Philadelphia, begins preparations to accommodate BJ’s in a single-level 87,000 square foot structure, along with five other new buildings to which DVL figures to attract other retailers.
The Kearny Planning Board voted 8-1 on Dec. 13, 2013, to approve an amended site plan for the property.
DVL President Alan Casnoff said last week that he has an “executed lease” with BJ’s, now that an understanding has been reached with Tully’s ShopRite that there will sufficient room for delivery vehicles to maneuver after the new construction.
“We’re in the design process now,” Casnoff said, “and we’re going through our approval process with the town. We anticipate we will begin work at the end of July as long as our tenants are out.” Tenants were given six-month notices to vacate by that date, he said.
Some form of environmental remediation is expected to be undertaken before demolition proceeds, Casnoff said. “We have to test some concrete to make sure it’s okay. We believe there’s a small amount of asbestos that has to come out.”
But until his experts can actually get inside all of the properties that are slated for demolition, DVL can only guesstimate how much remedial work needs to be done, Casnoff added.
Meanwhile, his tenants, including Discount City, James Farm Market, Domingo’s Bakery and Body Couture, are busy searching for new locations. (The K-mart and Modell’s won’t be disturbed so they can stay.)
Shalom, who also operates a wholesale company on the mall site, said he “just wished the town would have offered us something somewhere. I’ve been trying to find a retail space in the same general area because I’ve built something of a following here. But I don’t know if I can continue in the discount retail business. Big box stores make a difficult for small businesses.”
Shalom is also concerned for his loyal workers who face the loss of their jobs with the upheaval. He said he employs a combination of “seven to nine” part-timers and full-timers.
Around the corner, where Body Couture has offered women’s wear and cosmetics for the past 13 years, owner Jack Blanco seems to taking things in stride.
“No sour grapes,” said Blanco, whose father started the business as a family discount shop 15 years before he took over and upgraded it to a ladies’ fashion and beauty products.
He acknowledged that the landlord had the right to do what he wants with his property. “It’s fair because it’s always been a condition of our lease. Those were the conditions and we knew that,” he added.
Despite the looming eviction, Blanco has taken steps to redesign his shop, bringing in “a lot of brands” to test out on his clientele. “We’re trying to launch a new concept so we figured why not test it here since it may cost more to do it at a new space,” he said.
Blanco said he’s been “doing a lot of real estate searching in Kearny and elsewhere” for another location and “when we put together a game plan” refining how he wants to outfit the new place, he’ll have a better idea of more precise specifications for that space.
Currently, he employs a combination of a dozen part-and full-time staffers.
Inside a tight but cozy space in the Congoleum-Nairn building sits Domingo’s Bakery where proprietor Domingo Martin, his wife Dolores and nine employees – surrounded by shelves of pastries and holiday cakes – greeted a steady stream of customers last week.
Martin, who has run the shop for nearly four years, said he wasn’t unaware that he might face the predicament in which he now finds himself. “I knew this was supposed to happen sometime – I just didn’t expect it this fast,” he said. “I have a broken heart.”
He said he is negotiating for a new place on Kearny Ave. and is hopeful he can succeed.
Born in the Canary Islands off the Spanish coast, Martin and his family moved to Venezuela when he was a boy and, eventually, he got a degree in accounting. But he said he “always had a passion for foods” and, after working a decade “in the best bank in Venezuela,” he bade farewell to the world of finance and set up a small bakery.
“That was 35 years ago,” he said, sighing.
After resettling in the U.S., Martin said he got counseling from the Small Business Administration and developed a new bakery in Kearny where “we make all fresh products right here – Portuguese, Spanish, Italian.” His customers come not just from Kearny but also from places like Belleville, Jersey City and Union, he said.
One patron, Luis Soto, who works as a county corrections officer in South Kearny, introduced his daughter Erica, a West Orange resident, to the bakery last Thursday. “I’ve been coming here for two years,” Soto said. “They make great coffee – my favorite is their cappuccino. I love the atmosphere.”
Martin is hoping that his faithful patrons will follow him to his new quarters, if and when he makes the transition.