Warner Oral Histories: Small Businesses Make a Village
by Krista Madsen
The eclectic group of small business owners circling the table at the latest Warner Library Oral History session reflected the richness of our mom-and-pop landscape – how essential these enterprises are to our local lifestyle, how much they’ve changed through the decades, or in some cases, how they’ve helped maintain the traditions residents cherish.
Nancy Coffey, director of the funeral name bearing her married name, said that Coffey Funeral Home is the oldest ongoing business in 10591, at 105 years. Coffey said there are some around who still remember the founding Coffey, notably a very kind man, who became an undertaker when he met a Croton girl he liked whose father was one. From his first storefront on Beekman Avenue to other locations, the business had to be portable since families then hosted wakes in their own homes for days on end. In 1946, three generations of the family at once moved into their current quarters on North Broadway, a former mansion with a carriage house out back and servants’ quarters upstairs.
No getting around the fact that people still die as they always have, but services have shortened and moved into churches and funeral homes. Coffey mentioned she performed a “green” burial that morning at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery with the most minimal of pine boxes.
Jessica Mejias spoke on behalf of Los Andes Bakery, which in November celebrated its 25th anniversary in Sleepy Hollow. Perhaps, of the businesses represented, the bakery has changed the least. Thankfully, the bread still requires flour and water as it always has, said Mejias. “Nothing frozen, all homemade.” What has changed is their customers: there are more of them and they are more diverse than the other Chileans they originally attracted. The popular little shop of empanadas, cakes and sandwiches has expanded through the years to three locations in Peekskill and North Bergen, NJ. Though she now lives in Ossining, Mejias spends all her time at the Valley Street spot.
After living in Atlanta for some post-college years, Linda Rey returned to take up her father’s insurance business with her sister so he could retire. She now just moved to Connecticut, but “New York will continue to get my tax money” since they own the building Rey Insurance company occupies. As Mejias’ husband inherited baking from his family of bakers, Rey said she “started doing insurance at the age of two.” She has embraced the power of social media for the free advertising, but it can take up to two hours of her day. She’s found that the online networking time pays off as has her honesty and friendliness. “Get to know people first,” she said.
Then there are the copy brothers, Harris and Roger Bank, who continued on the same street where their father had a sheet metal shop. TZ Print operates out of a commercial house they inherited on Central Avenue. Email has made it possible for them to do everything digitally and never have to see their customers, but they miss that connection. “You don’t know your customers like you did 30 years ago,” Harris said.
John Millar has one foot in the paper industry where he’s spent his career, and one foot in his startup, Millar Tree and Turf. As he realized he could do his corporate paper brokering from home, he began to get certified in the tree and lawn care trade.
Customers want organics now, and he does many targeted root-based treatments. Despite the changes in both his trades, he still thinks face-to-face interaction is key.
Although you can buy anything online, Angel Rafter still believes that a real-world connection is an essential part of her business. Eight years ago to date of our session, she launched Nu Toy Store midway down Tarrytown’s Main Street; three years ago she “took another leap of faith” and upgraded to a storefront three times its size closer to the Broadway intersection. This location has made a huge difference to her visibility and expanded her clientele dramatically, she said. Rafter makes a point of also making herself visible in the community, as an organizer of Third Friday and co-President of the PTA. Customers appreciate the hands-on touches at her shop you can’t get on Amazon, from the thoughtful gift-wrapping to special events and touching the toys.
Formerly in the corporate world, Rafter’s move into this special subset of retail was the perfect fit for the new mother in a town that lacked a toy store. Her customers, unlike those of many other businesses, “come in 99.9 percent happy.” And, she added, “The loyalty we have throughout the town is phenomenal.”
Finally, some entrepreneurial advice from the experts: “Love what you do,” said Mejias. “Be patient, have passion, tolerance, energy. Everyday you’re ready to think fast and solve problems. Know everything.”
And, from Harris Banks: “You can’t be grumpy, even if they just spent 10 cents.”
Next up: join us in the new year for an Oral History session with the heads of non-profits in our villages. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will meet on Friday, Jan. 13 at 1 p.m. in the Warner Library, 3rd floor. Happy holidays!