Archive | September, 2012

Frank and Jennifer Greco – Astoria Coins and Collectibles

18 Sep

Frank and Jennifer Greco and their son Robert in Astoria Coins and Collectibles, 21-06 30th Ave

First up, a note from Jennifer Greco about the shop:

Astoria Coins and Collectibles is a place where collectors meet each other whether during working hours or on Saturdays, to discuss coins of interest, the market trends, or just stop by to say “Hello”.  The highlight of the store has always been the display cases, and whatever wall hangings we have on display at the moment, and the comradely conversations.  Frank Greco believes that these displays are not only of interest to our devoted customers, but even travelers find interest in the museum-like experience of seeing a small bit of history hanging on our walls and in our cases. Our unique coin shop is an interesting visit for people of all ages.

Interview

Frank and Jennifer Greco have run Astoria Coins and Collectibles on 30th Avenue since 1975.  It was a coin shop before then too.  Jennifer’s family owned the building, and the store first opened when she was around eight years old.  “I used to come in all the time with my Dad,” she says.  “I grew to love the shop and the idea of collecting coins…I guess it is in my blood now.”

She was fifteen when she met Frank.  They were both working at Key Food supermarket, at the time located not on 30th Ave as it is now but on 31st Street, between 21st Avenue and Ditmars.  Frank left Key Food after the couple had their children, as he was working really long hours.  He got a job with Air Canada at JFK airport and began working in the coin shop as well on Saturdays.  Then when he was laid off, he made the coin shop his full time vocation.  Their two sons and daughter are now grown up: the middle son, Robert, works in the coin store too.

“It’s the whole thing,” Frank says, on why he is passionate about working with coins.  “It’s a history lesson, really.  For example you start thinking about the movies, and John Wayne when he used to go into a bar with a silver dollar and get a whole bottle and a meal, and maybe even a woman and still get change!”

The store focuses on US coins, but also sells coins from many other countries.  Frank says that there used to be more coin shops, particularly in Manhattan.  But given the increasing rents and rise of the internet there are far fewer now.   He himself does a lot of business on the internet, while also sourcing coins from customers who bring them in, dealers who go from store to store, and shows.

The display cases that run the length of the store are crammed with clearly-labeled coins, each of which conveys a story.  Recently among them were a coin commemorating Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 address at Cooper Union before he became President, and a more recent coin marking the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in the UK.

The store also used to sell baseball cards and comic books, a hit with kids from the local boys club.  They still provide a bright patchwork on the walls, along with cabinets of coins, hanging bills, and a superhero mural.  But, Frank says, “It just got out of hand, got crazy.  I’d be selling baseball cards for a dollar a piece and then all of a sudden they came out with the high-end cards for $10 a piece.  Same thing with the comics.  But kids don’t have ten dollars.  So I just stopped it.”

The store provides an income tax service too.  It predates the coin business, in that Jennifer’s father had a real estate office next door which also did income tax.  Frank says: “At that time we would get the paper with the carbon copy in the middle and if you made a mistake you would rip it up and have to do another one.  When I got started, all I remember is ‘Do it over!  Do it over!”.

Astoria Coins and Collectibles is a place to hang out as much as a store.  “My eldest son always says that we should turn on a video here, because of the people who come in and just talk,” Jennifer says.  “Usually it starts about coins, about the economy, but then it becomes anything.”

A significant change they are seeing the neighborhood is the construction of new, expensive apartment buildings.  “I see a yuppie generation coming in,” says Jennifer.  “For the older generation – I can speak from my mom’s point of view because she was also born and raised in Astoria – she hates it.  She says they’re killing Astoria, I guess killing the country feeling of it, that she had growing up around 18th Street.”

Frank adds: “I grew up in Long Island City, down by Vernon Boulevard and 40th, where the Pepsi plant was.  When I grew up there it was just factories.  Now it’s Manhattan just coming right over the river.  And they’re going to do that along the waterfront here, too.  It’s just a matter of time.”

He says that properties are being overpaid for.  He cites the example of an apartment block on 21st Street where “they purchased five or six houses for $1.2 million.  Most people who live there paid like $8-10,000 for their houses.  If you get an offer for $1.2 million, you’re like ‘ok I’m out of here!’”

The coin store will no doubt though remain a community fixture for many years to come.  Jennifer recently returned to work there after retiring from her work in education.  “It’s invigorating,” she says.  “Especially having been in a classroom, a school, where you know there’s a lot of action, I never realized what I was missing all those years!”

Jennifer, Frank, and their dog Trudy

Baseball cards and comic books on the store wall

Gus Prentzas – Pavilion Florals

15 Sep

Gus Prentzas in his store Pavilion Florals at 30th Ave and 32nd Street

Gus Prentzas worked in a flower store while he was a politics and international relations student at college.  Then at the age of 22 he bought his own flower store in Astoria, on 29th and Ditmars.  Other than a short period out, he has stayed in the flower business, while keeping politically active through his involvement with local organizations.  He was NYC’s youngest ever school board member, and is currently Co-Chair of Community Board 1 (which covers Astoria), for example.

Pavilion Florals on 30th Ave was founded in 1974, and Gus bought it 15 years ago.  Its previous owner’s partner ran a radio station which was popular with the Greek entertainment industry.  Greek singers and entertainers would stop by the shop when they were in New York.

The store is still a community mainstay.  “Half my day is spent helping people out in the community,” Gus says, on issues ranging from traffic problems, to overcrowding in schools or in the nearby Mount Sinai Queens hospital.  “It’s not the hospital’s fault,” he says, “just its limited resources”.

His philosophy is that he does not have customers, but friends.  He adds, “As a florist, you deal with people on a very personal level.  It could be a baby’s birth, a wedding, or a time of sadness and sympathy like a funeral.  You’re there in the happy and the sad times in their life.”

One of the challenges in his industry is the fluctuations in the prices of the products he buys, among them flowers of course.  The largest exporters of flowers are Holland, Colombia and Ecuador.  “If you’re buying from Holland,” says Prentzas, “you’re dealing with the Euro, so as the Euro goes up the prices of flowers goes up.  Or, for example, if there are a lot of floods in Ecuador or Colombia around Valentines Day, farms get flooded out, there’s a shortage of roses, and that forces us to sell for higher.”

It’s not just the flowers.  The plastic for wrapping them has gone up 500 percent over the last five years.  And recently flower stores have confronted a shortage in helium for the first time.  “You’ll probably be shocked to find people having to charge $4 to blow up a balloon soon,” he says.

If someone from outside the neighborhood was visiting 30th Avenue, Gus would tell them, “just take a stroll about 10 blocks and you’ll see the diversity.  There will be an element of something that you are going to find attractive, or something that connects with you that will draw you to this community.”

Full archive of 30th Ave interviews

From the archives – Benny Banker, mailman

7 Sep

Here is the interview from this time last year, with mailman Benny Banker.  Watch this space for new interviews.  Initially this was intended to be a year-long project.  But there are plenty more stories to tell and people to read them, so I’ll be starting interviewing again in September 2012.  Annabel.  (p.s. the archive of all interviews so far is here).

Benny Banker delivering mail along 30th Ave

Benny (Virendra) Banker has been delivering mail along 30th Avenue for over 13 years.  “My area covers most of this heart part of Astoria,” he says.  “It’s a nice residential area.  There’s Astoria General Hospital which is now Mount Sinai, so there are a lot of doctors around here.”  Benny is also a singer of Hindi devotional songs and other forms of Indian classical music.

He lives in Queens Village, in Eastern Queens.  It takes him one and a half hours by train to get to Astoria.  But he makes it no matter what.  “On the day when there was the biggest snowstorm I woke up at four in the morning, I walked to the subway station and I took a train and I made it here by eight o’ clock.  I managed to work, while 80% of people didn’t make it to their work that day.”

He adds: “When people see us in the snow and the rain they feel really sorry about us.  But if you talk about counting the full year of 365 days we hardly have those heat waves and those mountains of the snow or the rain.  Hardly I would say ten days in the year.  This job may look like its hard but I think it is not that bad.  To be honest, the difficult and the easy thing about the job is just your mindset.”

Benny says that he loves his job “because it’s a service for the people.  I feel good seeing old people – when they wait for me and then they see me they become so happy.  If I am off a while, when I’m back everybody feels like a family member came back after a long time.  This job is also my lifesaver, because it gives me compulsory exercise everyday.”

Benny was born in Gujarat, India.  He came to New York City in his late teens, went back to Gujarat in 1977 when he got married, and returned to New York with his wife.  His three children are now grown up: one son is a pediatrician in Houston, one is a gastro-intestinal doctor in Stonybrook, and his daughter is in business management.

Benny crams a lot into his spare time.  He sings bhajan sandhyas (devotionals) and light classical Indian music in various languages including Hindi, Gujarati, Sanskrit, performing at events in New York and also other parts of the US.  (You can listen to him singing here).

He also designs and maintains websites, making the most of his Sunday mornings when he wakes up very early.  He has created one for his music, one for the block where he lives with details of their annual block party, one for hisreligious community, and also a site for memories of his mother.

When Benny first started working for the US Postal Service he was working in Brooklyn and living in Woodside.  That commute was very long: he applied for a transfer, and within six months his choice of the Long Island City area came up.  One of the main changes in the area that has affected him has been the increase in large new buildings with many apartments.  “That creates a parking problem mainly.  Before we used to find parking any time – now we have to struggle for it.”

Before, he says, there was a lot more first class mail.  “Now there is more junk mail, though even that is decreasing.”  He hastens to add that mail is not dwindling entirely.  “People still have to mail things like lawyers documents.  People still need a hard copy.”

The US Postal Service is currently in financial trouble and is planning to make major cuts, including by closing post offices.  One of the four in Queens on a list for potential closure is the Grand Post Office on 30th Ave between 45 and 46th Streets – over 1000 people have reportedly signed a petition to keep it open  [see update in comments below]. Benny keeps things in perspective though.  “Like every other business the post office is in the midst of hardship but personally I don’t think there’s a serious problem.  People do need to mail a letter.  Every business has a right to save the money and they are trying, but what I see in a big city like New York, downsizing will be almost impossible.

“What I say, is think positive you’re going to get positive.  If you think negative, you’re inviting the negative.”