By JHERELLE BENN
Laverne Washington browses carefully through the aisles of a variety store located on Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn. He gazes at natural potions, tonics, incense, afro-centric clothing and educational books. After speaking briefly with a sales associate he leaves with his purchase, Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap.
Washington and his family, who live on DeKalb Avenue, are no strangers to Nicholas Brooklyn Variety Store, having shopped there for almost a decade. In the past he has celebrated with Nicholas Brooklyn when his daughter, a published author, used the venue for her book signing event.
But now the store is relocating from its home at 570 Fulton St. near Rockwell Place, one more business moving on because of the rising rents that have accompanied the redevelopment of the downtown area and construction of the Barclays Center. Stores like Nicholas Brooklyn Variety play an important role in the neighborhood’s culture, but they’ve had difficulty hanging on to their prime location.
“This is our favorite store. It’s a shame that you all would have to relocate when Brooklyn is getting repopulated,” Washington said before leaving the store. “It’s a shame, it’s a shame.”
Monique Benjamin, who runs the store, said there is little choice. “Basically ever since they put up the Barclays Center that’s when people really started to notice the change in the area,” she said.
The $4 billion Atlantic Yards Project included the massive basketball arena, Barclays Center, and also promised market rate and affordable housing that has yet to be built. As a response to developer Bruce Ratner’s plans, a coalition of over 51 community organizations came together in opposition to create Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.
Sandra Bell, a Dean Street homeowner who joined the coalition, said she has seen the changes affect residents and business owners with her own eyes. “I get letters everyday to sell this house,” said Bell. After fighting against the changes to the neighborhood that were causing her friends and neighbors to slowly be pushed out after the Barclays Center was built, Bell remains one of the last black homeowners on the block.
“There are no provisions for the mom and pop businesses,” Bell added.
Many public officials supported the project and welcomed the change. Former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz called Atlantic Yards “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create the center of urban life that Brooklyn has long deserved, adding important amenities to the Downtown Brooklyn area.”
The supporters of Nicholas Brooklyn believe they have already found a “center for urban life” in such stores.
Sales associate Paris Williams, who has worked at Nicholas Brooklyn for three years, said her job at the store gave her the money she needed to support herself while maturing as an artist. “It’s sad but we have to be willing to adapt and change,” said Paris. “Yes Brooklyn is changing but guess what? If we are really Brooklyn heads we could be able to adapt anywhere that we go and still be able to pick up business.”
Nicholas Variety Store has been around since 1974 when founder Randolph Nicholas started making deliveries from the trunk of his car. He built connections and acquired a physical location in the Union Square area of Manhattan, where the store survived for 20 years – then he relocated to Harlem on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue, and eventually added a second location Downtown Brooklyn in 2006.
Nicholas’ daughter, Monique Benjamin, followed in her father’s footsteps by running the Brooklyn location and transforming the store into what she calls “a place that changes people.” Providing jobs, giving opportunities to artists to showcase their talents, hosting community events, providing quality products and giving back to the people are all the ways Nicholas sets itself apart from big corporations and the chain stores that line Fulton Street.
The building in which Nicholas is housed was purchased by developers Slate Property Group, Meadow partners, and an unknown third party for $23 million, according to The Real Deal, a New York real estate new site. The loss of Nicholas and other family-owned businesses affects more than just the flow of economy. “Everything will be very commercial. Everything is being affected by it,” said Benjamin.
The store has found another home at Restoration Plaza in Bedford-Stuyvesant where it will be locked in for 10 years. The official move is set to take place before the end of the year.
The building where Nicholas Brooklyn Variety Store is currently housed will most likely be turned into luxury condos by 2017, according to The Real Deal. A simuliar fate meets the property right next door on 66 Rockwell Place. And three more buildings just northwest at the intersection of Fulton Street, Dekalb Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, which was purchased by a real estate company called RedSky Capital for $24.4 million.
With the many development projects taking place the coming years will bring an abundance of luxury apartments and pricey hotel rooms. But there won’t be anywhere to buy Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap.
“Eventually there won’t be anything here,” said Benjamin.