These 6 Businesses Have Survived the Depression, War and Now the Pandemic


The number of small businesses in New York City closing because of the pandemic — more than 2,800 since March — has been stark. But some independent family businesses in the metropolitan area — all deemed essential — not only operated throughout the worst part of the outbreak and are still going strong, but also survived 20th-century crises like the Great Depression and World War II. Here are a few of them.

The Village Apothecary Shoppe, founded by a Vermont doctor in 1838, was passed from employee to employee over the next 100 years, one of whom gave it its current name. In 1939 a Polish pharmacist, William Ginsberg, turned it into a family business, and today four generations of Ginsberg pharmacists have run Bigelow, which is part pharmacy, part boutique, part museum.

During World War II, the drugstore had a penicillin window that was allowed to remain lit while the city shut down and went dark for air raid drills. During the blackout of 1977, Bigelow’s soda fountain served customers 24 hours a day. And on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Ian Ginsberg, the current owner, watched the towers fall as waves of people ran up Sixth Avenue. He stayed at the store that day, sleeping in a lift chair in the surgical department.

Since the pandemic began, longtime customers have been calling nonstop. “Most people get their medical info from those great medical journals Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, so we deal with the fallout from that and have to calm everyone down,” Mr. Ginsberg said.

Sales are down, but Mr. Ginsberg remains optimistic.

“Bigelow is a place people want to go to,” he said. “You never say, ‘I want to go to a chain drugstore like CVS.’ The minute we’re a ‘have to,’ we’re dead.”

When Claus Holtermann, a German immigrant, opened his Staten Island bakery in 1878, he delivered bread orders by foot. In the early 1930s, his son Albert built a new storefront and kitchen with his own hands. Since then, the bakery’s original (and giant) dough mixers have worked around the clock to produce family specialties like long, narrow Pullman loaves and santart cakes (a ring of dough and fruit, like a denser version of a Bundt cake).

Ethel Holtermann, 90, remembers railroad cars of rationed flour deliveries arriving during World War II. Staten Island was still rural then, with dirt roads. But the arrival of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in 1964 changed everything.

Holtermann’s endured some trying times as the neighborhood changed around it. In the mid-20th century, the city developed and introduced Fresh Kills Landfill, which the Holtermanns vehemently opposed, with good reason: It was basically next door and would become one of the largest dumps in the world. As such, the Environmental Protection Agency would conduct regular water tests around the bakery, which had to take extra health precautions, Ms. Holtermann said. The bakery’s patience paid off: The landfill closed in 2001 and is now a cutting-edge green space.

The Van Breeman family, Dutch immigrants, opened Richfield Farms in 1917. They would ship vegetables to New York City via the Morris Canal, which reminded them of the waterways in the Netherlands, according to family records. They also opened a farm stand in Clifton, which offered hot dogs, grilled cheese and sodas to soldiers training in the area during World War II.

During the Great Depression, growing food and selling vegetable seeds saved the family business. Since then, the farm has diversified; it now has a retail garden center, a landscape design department and a nursery, in addition to its produce market and organic farm.

“People have told me this type of industry is not really impacted by recessions, depressions or epidemics,” said Will Morton, a fourth-generation owner of Richfield Farms. “We actually see an uptick in business when these things happen.”

The farm is perfectly positioned, yet again.

“It’s been busy,” Mr. Morton said. “Everyone is home. They’re cooking. They’re gardening. They’re looking at their yards, they’re looking at their neighbors’ yards.”

With its bulk bins heaving with Middle Eastern ingredients and its popular prepared foods counter, this 125-year-old international grocery store has earned a cult following.

Abrahim Sahadi, a Lebanese immigrant, opened A. Sahadi and Co. on Washington Street in Lower Manhattan — what was then known as Little Syria — in 1895. Wade Sahadi, his nephew, created Sahadi’s Importing Company in 1941.

In 1948, construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel forced the store to relocate to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

For Sahadi’s, stresses on its importing business have mostly been caused by political issues in foreign countries, but the Sept. 11 attacks proved to be a big challenge too, said Ron Sahadi (Wade’s grandson).

“We’re right over the Brooklyn Bridge, so we’re as close to Manhattan as you can get without being there,” he said. The worry then, he said, was whether people would continue to support a Middle Eastern grocery store. They did.

Like many stores in old buildings, Sahadi’s is not ideal for socially distant shopping. This spring, it closed to the public and focused on deliveries. But now its loyal customers are back, wearing masks.

In 1917, Arthur Sussman created a stand-alone boiler to heat steam irons for New York City’s booming garment industry. At the onset of World War II, Mr. Sussman, working from his factory at Columbus Circle, supplied steam irons for military uniform makers. Soon thereafter, the factory relocated to Queens.

By the 1980s, much of the garment industry had moved overseas. The company transitioned to producing industrial boilers and steam generators for saunas.

“The industrial boiler division has always been strong in serving the scientific and health care communities,” said Michael Pinkus, the company’s current president. Throughout the pandemic, Sussman-Automatic has played a role in sterilizing respirator and ventilator parts.

But its home spa business has been doing well, too, just as it did in other difficult periods, like the 2008 recession and after Sept. 11.

“The primary impact of Sept. 11, 2008, and now this,” Mr. Pinkus said, “is the trend of looking at your home as the ultimate sanctuary, as a place to invest in, to spend quality time in.”

Gilbert Teitel, 81, has worked at this Italian food imports store in some capacity since he was 8. He grew up in the upstairs apartment, where he watched his father and uncle, the store’s founders, work in 24-hour shifts, replenishing the icebox in the days before refrigeration. He remembers stories of shoppers using ration books and coupons during World War II, when the shortage of olive oil and other Italian imports hit the store’s bottom line. He watched property values plummet and crime rise when Belmont was rezoned in the 1960s.

But for Mr. Teitel, the pandemic is different.

“I have never seen anything like this in my life, and I don’t think anyone else has. It’s kind of disastrous,” he said.

But he’s still working. He chose the 105-year-old store over retirement because he enjoys discussing foods and socializing with customers, although he is having difficulty with the new normal.

“Everyone’s wearing a mask and gloves. Only five people allowed in at a time. You have to stay six feet apart,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t even recognize the customers because of the masks. It’s taxing.”



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