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New York’s Iconic Souvenir Sellers Getting Squeezed by Tourism Crunch

A shuttered souvenir store in Manhattan, Sept. 9, 2020.
Manhattan’s NY Gift is among the souvenir shops that have gone out of business amid the pandemic.
Carson Kessler/THE CITY

There are far more yellow taxi cabs in Albert Tutus’ souvenir shop than on the street outside of it.

Inside Memories of New York, his Fifth Avenue store, hundreds of “I Love New York” t-shirts and sweatshirts line the walls. Times Square is frozen inside glittery snow globes. And tiny Lady Liberties sit atop a dusty counter that has seen busier days.

In over 30 years of business, 75-year-old Tutus has never experienced a lull quite like this.

“I just wait for customers all day,” he said.

Unlike many of the neighboring tourist-geared shops in Midtown, Memories of New York remains open. Tutus sits mostly alone for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, hoping a few customers might stumble into his shop.

“Everyone knows it’s just dead slow. Dead,” he said. “Honest to God, nothing.”

Officials had been expecting a record 67 million visitors in 2020, until the abrupt citywide shutdown in March. Very few tourists means no one to buy the thousands of keepsakes that memorialize New York — and souvenir hawkers across the city are feeling the squeeze.

‘It’s My Baby’

Increasing business last year spurred what turned out to be an ill-timed expansion for Chinatown souvenir shop owner Rehan Mamud.

During the first week of March, the 27-year-old Queens resident purchased the neighboring empty storefront, broke through the adjoining wall and doubled the size of his gift shop on Mott Street. Then COVID-19 hit.

After the remodeling, Mamud closed his store on March 13 and flew back to his native Bangladesh for four months.

“It’s very bad luck for me, you know, I can do nothing because I spent a lot of money for breaking this wall and fixing all the things,” he said. “It’s very hard for me right now to survive.”

“I love NY” merchandise on sale at Grand Slam New York in Times Square, Sept. 18, 2020.
Merchandise on sale at Grand Slam New York in Times Square.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Since arriving in the U.S. eight years ago, souvenir shops have been a large part of Mamud’s American experience. His first job, just 15 days after landing in New York, was as a store clerk in a souvenir shop owned by another Bangladeshi.

He worked for two other souvenir shop owners before finally opening his own store at 47 Mott St. in 2015. “I built this. It’s my baby,” he said proudly.

Mamud added he is doing all he can to save his “baby.” And he’s extremely thankful for his “very nice” landlord, who is charging him half the usual rent.

“Still, half rent is too much,” he added. “I’m struggling to pay their money.”

Electric Bills Zap Owners

Near the Brooklyn Bridge along Park Row, another souvenir shop NY Gifts, is also getting a rent discount.

After closing for four months, remaining shut was just not an option, said Alex, who works in the shop owned by his son and asked to be identified only by his first name.

“When you have no tourists — no business,” he said.

NY Gifts’ only customers are “those that come from the mosque [across the street] or someone who buys something small for under $10,” he added. “Last year, everyone was coming here. Lots of customers. And now, nothing.”

The cost of simply keeping the lights on is “too much.” According to Alex, August’s electricity bill was $1,500.

A shuttered souvenir store in Manhattan, Sept. 9, 2020.
A shuttered souvenir store in Manhattan
Carson Kessler/ THE CITY

In his own attempt to offset the cost of electricity at his Chinatown store, Mamud keeps his shop closed most of the day. “If I open the whole day, it’s a lot of money and I have to pay bills,” he said.

Instead, Mamud opens in the late afternoon until around midnight, hoping his products might catch the eye of dining tourists or the occasional New Yorker who wants to help out by buying a keychain or magnet. On one recent day, Mamud made $155 — that’s a $0 profit.

“I’m working for my business,” he said. “Nothing for myself. Just keep trying to save my business.”

Similarly, Tutus is also facing sky-high electricity bills.

“Son of a gun! Con Edison just called, $875 in electric a month,” he told THE CITY on a recent afternoon. “I said, ‘What, are you guys crazy? My store is closing!’”

‘Things Happen’

Asked about the plight of souvenir shops, a spokesperson for NYC & Company, the city’s tourism arm, pointed to the “All In NYC: Neighborhood Getaways” promotion to spur New Yorkers to “experience the best of the five boroughs.”

“We encourage all businesses, including retailers, to take part,” said the spokesperson, Britt Hijkoop.

Tutus, who hasn’t seen any boost from the city effort, is getting creative with his merchandise. A display stand of Black Lives Matter and NYC-themed face masks sits near the front door.

“I loaded up the masks because maybe with schools opening they might be needing a few masks since every student has to wear a mask,” he said of his new product line.

Tutus is also looking into the world of e-commerce, after talking to one of his friends who had luck selling $1,000 worth of puzzles online when quarantine began.

He remains hopeful. He aims to work another 10 years before retiring, even though he’s told his daughters the “10 more years half-truth” for the past few decades.

“It’ll be okay,” Tutus said with a million miniature Manhattan skylines behind him. “We just have to be patient. Things happen.”

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