For every East Village business that’s opening or closing, dozens are quietly making it. Here’s one of them: Russian & Turkish Baths.
In this kind of weather, there’s no better place to thaw out your tuchis than at the Russian & Turkish Baths at 268 East 10th Street. The 120-year-old “social spa,” purchased in 1985 by Russian emigres David Shapiro and Boris Tuperman, has always drawn a loyal following of hardcore shvitz-heads, and now a new generation has discovered it thanks in part to online coupons. But if you’re planning to cash in on this week’s half-off promotion, you’ll have to go on one of Mr. Shapiro’s days: the owners have been at odds with each other for over a decade. We asked Mr. Shapiro’s son Dmitry — who works with his brother Jack 181 days out of the year, and has the other 184 days off — how the anachronistic business has managed to survive despite its wacky business structure.
What is the deal with your internal feud? Why do we all know about it?
I can tell you first-hand this thing isn’t interesting. Yes, this is a unique business and business structure, but I don’t think it’s really the best way to run a business. I just really think this happens to be the only way we could do it.
It seems we as outsiders have to know the deal since some people prefer the days of one partner to the other. Can you break down how things are run differently by you guys?
We have the same kitchen and massage staff, but we have our corporation and he has his corporation. He has his team who runs the front desk and I have my team who runs the desk. When you buy a package from one of us, it only works with the staff you buy it from. I have a different idea of the kind of people who should be behind the desk than he does. I like using computers. I use a POS system. I don’t like using little slips of paper to run my business. I never raise my voice to customers. We have Facebook and Twitter pages. We have e-mail lists and send out e-mail blasts. We’re just two eras existing under one roof with one mortgage.
How do you deal with the financials of running a business, bills, etc?
The energy bills — water, gas, electric — are really high. But when there is a bill or some kind of renovation that needs to be done, we get together and agree on it. We put in the redwood sauna and the aromatherapy room. We changed the facade of the building. Those are the big changes we made, and we agreed on them together. We paid the price together. This place isn’t brain surgery. There isn’t much to do to it. I come in on his week and show Boris all the bills and he signs all the checks. He’s the crazy uncle I never had. I love my real uncle. He’s nice and sweet. Boris is the crazy one I don’t have otherwise. He recently had a therapist dress up like Michael Jackson and sing Michael Jackson songs in the kitchen area on a Friday night. Not too relaxing. Maybe it’s more fun, but it’s not really a way to run a business.
Most businesses would have failed long ago with your model. Why are you guys still making it?
It obviously helps that we are very popular. You’d have to be a very unique type of business. I couldn’t imagine a cupcake shop surviving this. At one point we were the only bathhouse in all of New York, in any of the boroughs. We had a virtual monopoly. You really need to be committed to what you want to do and how you want to run your place. You need an understanding staff working for you. Also, people need to release stress and we seem to be a place that people stick to during their own harder times. We’re cheaper than getting a drug habit, or taking a trip to Jamaica.
I think it is important to note that this isn’t your typical soothing Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door spa experience.
We’re a very social spa. This isn’t a tranquil place where you put cucumbers on your face. Our place is just the opposite. Strangers want to talk to strangers here and people want to be social. You’re not going to conventionally relax here, but you’re going to meet people and sweat next to them.
How is it you scored such a great schedule where you have 184 days of vacation?
In theory I only have to work 181 days a year, but in practice I’m answering e-mails all the time. I do get to travel a lot.
You and your brother went to law school before you took over the business, why did you leave the courtroom for the steam room?
We never got into the legal world really. I didn’t really feel a passion for it or enjoy it much. I felt the bureaucracy of it was numbing. It’s a lot easier to work here, even with this situation.
Do you find listing deals with Groupon and LivingSocial worth it?
When this whole Groupon thing started to really come out, I knew it was a an opportunity for us to get new customers. We’re not making as much money per client, but I’m fine with that because all my costs are fixed costs. If I have 10 people in or 1,000 people in, I still pay my mortgage. Still have to pay my laundry guys. Still have to pay my assistants. I don’t worry about the per person the way a restaurant does. I just wanted to get more new people. Admittedly, I did go a little overboard, but we got a lot of new people. We got so much new business that we had overflow that went to Boris.
Which of you brings in more money?
I have no idea. He doesn’t keep records. We do have the same accountant. Since I have more people from all those promotions, I’d assume I am doing better now. Boris says, “My week is better because I keep the room hotter,” but that doesn’t make the place better, it just makes the place hotter. That was the reason he created for people to come on his week. At some point he might have had more people than us, but I think this past year we did. It doesn’t really matter though, we’re all doing really well so we can’t complain.
How do you keep this place clean enough to keep the health department away and customers coming back?
It’s very hard to keep this place clean because it’s so busy. I have a laundry crew of four people and they’re here all day long cleaning. Then they’re here all night cleaning top to bottom — the whole place. This is every night, four or five hours a night. So this place is cleaned all the time and we try to keep it clean while the customers are here, but the problem is there’s a lot of people. People do feel a little bit of entitlement where they say, “I paid for it. It should be perfectly cleaned.” We do our best, but there is no way we’re going to be one of these fancy spas. If we only allowed 10 people in at a time, it would be spotless and beautiful. We like to cram everyone in like they’re in a subway and see what happens. It’s our science experiment.