The kids are there all the time, explains Rob Armada, who has owned the comic book and collectibles shop for three years. In fact, the Yu-Gi-Oh club is part of Armada's business plan—and, he says, his contribution to the neighborhood. Members pay $20 for three months of "unlimited dueling." There are 242 members at present. Armada's 52-year-old brother is among those who frequent the store to get their game on, although his obsession is not Yu-Gi-Oh but Magic: The Gathering.
"This is important to me," Armada says, gesturing at the tables. "We're not a not-for-profit. But you know what? No one else is offering the kids anything around here."
Third Avenue in the vicinity of 149th Street is known as the Hub, and it is a traditional shopping district. But it has changed dramatically in the past 15 years, says Vincent Valentino, executive director of the local BID and a former police officer whose rookie beat was on these same streets. "We had a lot of mom-and-pops. They're all gone now. They were struggling to survive, and now they're gone," he says.
The key event was the development of Site 12, a block-long complex that houses Forman Mills, Staples, Rite Aid and other chains. The project improved the neighborhood, Valentino says, bringing more customers for all businesses. But then "rents started going up, and after the rents started going up, the mom-and-pops shut down ... small clothing stores, small appliance stores—and these are people who'd been down here 55 years." Small businesses do remain. Near the Site 12 stores are an independent gym, a barber shop, a Latin music store, Armada's place, a couple of furniture firms, some men's clothiers and a pet shop. What they share with the chains is a general lack of business.
"I have nine vacancies. I might even have 10—I haven't made my rounds today," says Valentino one day in August. "This is ‘back to school’. This our busiest time, and I haven't seen the crowds." Valentino was hired to clean up the area when crime was bad. Now crime is down, but so is business—so much so that this summer the BID couldn't place summer youth employment program participants because local businesses were laying off regular staff.
One new challenge is the Gateway Center that the city built near Yankee Stadium; that's drawing some business away. Local residents hail from some of the poorest census tracts in the city and lack buying power. Members of the BID's board have told Valentino they "don't want to see any reports about security or sanitation. They want to know what I'm going to do to bring the business back," says Valentino. "I don't have an answer, to tell the truth. You can't make people spend money if they don't want to."
At Fulton Furniture, on the corner of 153rd Street—the Bronx outpost of a small local chain—the manager, Juan Lantigua, concurs: "You get two days, two weeks, two months when things pick up, and then they go back down. It's that roller-coaster feeling." Lantigua likes the neighborhood's chains. He says they bring foot traffic, and people stop in to check out the furniture.
But Armada says he has tried to form discount partnerships with Staples and the nearby Modell's, but they turned him down. After all, they aren't really local businesses. "The chain may be in Alabama, Louisiana," he says.
What does help Armada is the Department of Finance office at Site 12, across the street. A lot of his customers are people who decide to treat themselves after the unpleasant process of paying a parking ticket. Other people come to the store to sell rather than buy. A debt comes due, and they've got to say goodbye to Han Solo or Aquaman. Armada knows it can get emotional, so he tries to throw in a new action figure with whatever money changes hands. "We kind of make up for it. They remember that. People come back to you, so you gotta treat them right."