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Making It | Fred Stern of Best Housekeeping - The Local East Village Blog - NYTimes.com


Making It | Fred Stern of Best Housekeeping


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best housekeepingShira Levine

For every East Village business that’s opening or closing, dozens are quietly making it. Here’s one of them: Best Housekeeping.

How has Best Housekeeping managed to stay in business since 1924? “Old-fashioned, corny customer service,” said Fred Stern, whose father bought the building that houses the wholesale appliance store at 17 Avenue A for a mere $110,000 some 34 years ago (the store’s original owner, Bernie Hymowitz, chose the name Best Housekeeping to honor his own initials). Mr. Stern, who inherited the role of president from his father Martin ten years ago, said that over the past few years business has improved 25 percent, in part because competitors have gone under. Now, he’s hustling to get the enterprise ready for the next generation to take over: he has six boys and one girl. “I will consider myself lucky if two of them go into the business,” he said. “Let’s just say I don’t think I’m busting my chops for nothing to make it.”

Q.

You do kitchen appliances and cabinetry; most businesses do one or the other.

A.

Actually, it was initially a furniture store with a little bit of appliances on the side. My father dropped about half the amount of furniture and upped the appliances. When I took over I dropped all the furniture to focus on just appliances and cabinetry. We kept the name, though. We like the old sign.

IMG_4170Sarah Darville
Q.

The signage is awesome. You must get all kinds of curious people coming in.

A.

Well, 90 percent of my customers are landlords and contractors, and I am proud to say over 90 percent of those customers are repeat business. Yes, we are open to the general public, but we call ourselves a “warehouse store” so we are geared to serious shoppers. This isn’t the kind of place you stop by and look around. We don’t want you to waste your time or to waste our time. This is not your box store with wide aisles that makes you feel good. It’s not fancy, it’s for serious people.

Q.

Do you get most of your business here in the East Village?

A.

I would say maybe half our customers are 34th Street and down. We pride ourselves on being a local vendor, but we also go to the Bronx, Staten Island, Queens, Jersey, the whole gamut. A lot of management companies that have buildings here have buildings in other parts of the city. When you prove your worth as a supplier here, then they use you somewhere else.

Q.

These days this neighborhood is more trendy shops versus old-school, industry-targeted suppliers. Do you feel like you still fit in?

A.

We sell kitchen cabinets and appliances predominately for middle-income housing, not too high or too low, whatever middle is these days which is what is mostly still here.

Q.

What’s your definition of success?

A.

Being able to survive by my standards is the first part of being successful, particularly with all these regulations and stuff the city is always putting out there. Since we sell both cabinets and appliances we offer a package deal, a full package that our competitors don’t offer. It can be more stressful but we are able to stand out.

Q.

How is it stressful?

A.

Most management companies are downsizing, so the main guy is now doing all the management stuff on his own. We try to work with their reduced patience and time. I give my cell phone out to landlords and management companies – not to manufacturers. I want to be there for them if they need anything. I don’t answer at 3 a.m. and of course not on shabbos (then the phones are down) but otherwise I am there. I am not a 9-to-5 business, I am always monitoring.

Q.

Don’t the big box stores get a better rate for buying in bulk directly from the manufacturer?

A.

I buy directly from GE with next day delivery, and GE is 70 percent of what landlords use. I get it for the same price as the big guys, and don’t mark it up as much. When you buy direct from the manufacturers it’s easier to survive.

Q.

You don’t pay rent since you own the building, but are there other costs?

A.

We pay a lot of taxes and insurance. Things have gotten harder the last seven years. Our insurance more than doubled. The taxes are a fortune.

Q.

How have you cut costs?

A.

We only have air conditioning now. We switched to gas so we don’t have heat anymore. Now we don’t have to heat four stories and our bill went down 80 to 90 percent because we did that. It’s cold in the winter, sure, but we manage.