Giftshop Struggles to Stay Afloat

Giftshop Struggles to Stay Afloat

Rudy worries. In fact, he keeps  a jar full of them.

Right next to a cash register in his tiny East Village shop, sits a large glass jar brimming with hundreds of tiny clay pieces. Up close, each piece—no larger than a thumbnail—appears to be a miniature jar-shaped bead, hand-painted in bright yellows, blues, reds, greens, oranges and purples.. These are Guatemalan “worry beads.”

By tradition, you wear a bead—“some women have 300 sewn on their cloth pants!”—and when it falls off, your worry will be gone too, explains Rudy, 50, co-owner of Rudy Volcano, a unique gift shop located in Alphabet City. These beads, among block-printed tote bags, hand-stitched fabrics, elaborate wooden carvings and other gifts, décor and apparel, were all handmade by the indigenous people of Mexico, India, Peru and Rudy’s own native Guatemala.

With his co-owner and close friend, Ward, 67, the two have been successfully selling the handmade wares for more than a decade. That is, until a changing demographic and steep increases in rent drove the store from its birthplace in Jackson Heights to 167 Avenue C. The store relocated in March 2012 and just six months after settling in, Hurricane Sandy hit. Hard.

“I remember I went to church that day,” said Ward in a phone interview. “It had been raining pretty hard for a while so I told Rudy to stay at home. I was worried about the plants on my terrace. I thought I’d stop by the store though, put things up about three feet just in case. Turns out I was three feet too short.”

About two hours later, the East River nearly swallowed Avenue C—its many bars, eateries, bodegas and stores including the first-floor rental space that was Rudy Volcano.  Boxes of handmade goods that had been stored in the basement for the holiday season were under water. The camera system was wiped out. The computers were damaged. The boiler downstairs had tipped resulting in a foul smell erupting from beneath for days. Two feet of water on the main floor birthed weeks of mold and fungus.

What followed was two months of devastation. “No lights, no power, no phone, no funds,” said Ward. Like hundreds of other Sandy victims, Rudy Volcano didn’t receive a penny from insurance companies. The store took in $28,000 worth of loans and donations from family and friends to help get business running again. Forced international rush-orders on replacement merchandise was an expensive but vital step to recovery. It was, however, only one step out of many.

“It was terrible. We were in so much debt. We still are,” says Rudy, leaning against a stack of three cardboard filing-sized boxes, one of several that lined an entire wall of the store, each one filled with woven skirts, cloth bags, hand-dyed silks and handicrafts in exotic hues. Beneath him, the white floors, still chipped in some places and peeling in others, are a reminder that—even a year later—Rudy Volcano isn’t what it used to be.

Prior to Sandy, the store’s average numbers rang in at about $300-$500 a week with $2000 average earnings during weekends, said Ward. During Christmas 2011, the year before the hurricane, sales totaled at $7500. Ever since the store re-opened last November however, Ward admits transactions have more than plummeted—often a single sale per day no more than $15-$30. They were also forced to let their only two employees go. “Sandy put them out of work too. It affected a ripple of people,” says Ward.

With no one left to man the store but themselves, Rudy and Ward’s worries grow a little more each day.

Rudy says he remembers Ward on his hands and knees for days after the storm trying to clean up the store as quickly as possible. “Ward and I, we’re getting old, you know? I had a stroke a couple of months ago and Ward’s in and out of the hospital a lot too.” He thumbs through a stack of glossy business cards, black with red and yellow designs that read “Rudy Volcano” above the store’s address. “Ward used to hand out flyers and stuff. I made the Facebook page. But we don’t have enough people to help us. We don’t have money for a social media person. If we sell at Union Square or something, who’s going to stay here? It just us two.” But he says he loves the business too much to shut it down. .

One October afternoon, a woman walks in carrying grocery bags. Rudy says her name is Sandy—“like the hurricane”—and that she lives upstairs.

“What you got today, Rudy? How you doing?” she says, looking at the brightly colored coin purses and beaded earrings. She reaches out to touch a long ivory skirt with warm brown stitching at the hem and across the soft imported fabric.

“Oh! How much?”

“I’ll give you $60 for the skirt with the top.”

“I love this. You know that dress I bought? Makes me feel like a Peruvian you know?”

“Yes, yes, beautiful.”

The woman pulls out her wallet.

“But our credit machine is down, sorry.”

“Oh?” She thumbs through a few dollar bills. “I have to pay my friend back still, you know? Show me your earrings, what jewelry do you have?”

Sandy doesn’t purchase anything today. But she suggests Rudy invest in a portable card reader, the kind attached to an iPhone. “I hate technology, I have this $20 flip phone, Rudy! But you gotta get one of those, you can take it around, sell outside the store, you know?” He laughs, nods and they exchange pleasantries. He tells her to take care and soon enough, an all-too familiar quiet emptiness fills the store again.

A little girl still in her school clothes—pleated skirt, Mary Janes and a yellow backpack with a panda on the front—walks into the warm glow of the store, her eyes wandering from paintings on the walls to handmade masks, dolls and pocket trinkets along the shelves.

“Petra! How are you, sweetheart? You were my very first customer!”

“Hi. Good,” the girl says softly. She picks up a doll-sized wooden mask painted in fierce black, green and white like the characters from the Beijing Opera and examines it. An older woman walks in behind her.

“Hi Rudy, how are you? We’re looking for something for grandma’s birthday today, right sweetie?”

After a little while, the mother and daughter decide on a hand-woven blouse with black block-printed designs for $180. Rudy reminds them his credit machine is down.

“It’s okay, I have enough cash,” says the mother pulling out twenty-dollar bills. She asks Rudy if he can wrap up the gift.

“And for you, my special customer, a discount!” he says to Petra who holds up three wool finger puppets. “$1.25 on sale from $2!”

When the two leave, Rudy sighs and smiles tiredly. “It was a lucky day today.”

The volume of visitors has never returned, admits Ward. Moreover, at this point, both he and Rudy are essentially working for free. But this doesn’t hold them back, especially Rudy. He believes that though the store may have lost a lot during Hurricane Sandy, his spirit is not lost. “I know we will come through. I care about these people and this business too much, we put so much in. There has to be a reason we’re still here, right?”

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