Sliver of Mom & Pop Paradise - Silver Moon Bakery
As an antidote to recent posts that I titled "Empty Storefronts and the Changing Streetscape," which you can read here and here, here now is a feature that celebrates those Mom & Pop businesses, whether old or new, that are in the trenches making it work in Bloomingdale. Like this week's little juiceteria, a business needs to maximize the output of its square footage to make a dent in the monthly commercial rent. And this is one explanation for all the food and alcohol that's being purveyed around town. Volume is another must. That makes Mom & Pop gun shy to say the least. It's hostile terrain for them.
The pearl of a shop, Silver Moon Bakery, does both food and volume -- a delicious selection of breads and pastries and a line of customers straight out the door in most any season. It also adds in an artisan's touch passing on the bread and patisserie craft to apprentices. That's a lot for one little storefront.
Judith Norell is the artisan-entrepreneur behind Silver Moon Bakery, or SMB as she refers to it, on the northeast corner of West 105th Street and Broadway. She sends out a warm newsletter with what's
In one of the earliest posts in the "Hyper-Local Eats" blog feature, Judith Norell's Silver Moon Bakery was a first stop. You can read that old post here, an ode to her ginger blueberry muffin.
Since I have long admired Judith as an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, a second-careerist, a neighborhood champion and an emblem of the Mom & Pop potential to rebound on our avenues, I wanted to feature her again.
SMB anchors the charming, unchanged historic building, that is captured over the years in these shots below. Judith was able to open SMB because her then landlord, Georgia Stamoulis, became her partner. To this day, Georgia remains Judith's partner, but Georgia's brother, Michael Rose (who owns Broadway Cellar) is the current SMB landlord. To Georgia and Michael, we owe a word of thanks for keeping this vibrant bakery right where it belongs, bespoke for their special, low-lying corner of Broadway.
I caught up with Judith a while back for the Q&A you'll see below.
But before we dig in, what can we all do if we value this sort of shop and feel it enhances our day-to-day?
Help make her bottom line! Buy treats. Grab sandwiches. Get lattes. Order your special event cakes. Thank all her employees for keeping on keeping on, for their attention to quality, for their fondness for neighbors and those who come from other areas to indulge.
Right now is the season for the buttery-flakefest of a viennoisserie: the almondy Galette des Rois, replete with crown to celebrate Twelfth Night. Trust me, you won't regret ordering one.
If we let down our guard, they'll pave paradise and put up a parking lot (under a modern luxe condo).
Q&A with Judith Norell, proprietor of Silver Moon Bakery
Caitlin Hawke: When did you establish Silver Moon at the corner of 105th and Broadway…a corner that is perfect for you?
Judith Norell: We opened on Nov 8, 2000
Caitlin: How do you keep it fresh? SMB hasn’t aged at all....
Judith: Well, we paint once in a while and put in new countertops, so SMB looks better. But, seriously, I love to travel, and whenever or wherever I travel, I talk to bakers and taste. So I find new ideas from the interchange of different cultures.
Judith: My original thought was to call it Silent Moon Bakery after a Zen poem about the Buddha who, like the moon in the sky, silently illuminates everything.
Caitlin: Artisanal bread baking is a second and illustrious career for you after your work as a professional harpsichordist that I read about here, here and here. How long did you think you'd be in the baking game when you started SMB?
Judith: I never calculated. My choices have usually been approached as “an adventure” -- I do it with my full heart, but, like an adventure, it may succeed and may not.
Caitlin: How has business evolved for you as your reputation has been more and more burnished over the years?
Judith: I don’t really know how to answer that question. We opened, and still are, an artisanal neighborhood bakery, and in spite of any publicity we have received, we rely on our immediate neighbors to keep us open. Personally, being an Upper West Sider for many years, I am familiar and comfortable with the political and social attitude in our neighborhood. This means – at least in my experience – open criticism when things are not perfect, complaints about “high prices” (although in 17 years, our prices have increased much less than most other food items have. Check out our local supermarkets and compare their prices with those of 15 years ago). I personally have not profited financially from our increased reputation, but have tried to benefit our employees whenever things got a bit better.
Caitlin: What is important to you in business as part of your life view?
Judith: To try to create a harmonious work atmosphere, and to realize that the most genius person can't do it alone, but relies on everyone working with him or her to be successful. People spend at least a third of their day at work, and it should be as pleasurable or at least benign as possible. I speak from experience; during my apprenticeship in a bakery, the owner didn't know how to talk to those working for him; he was not a mean man, but like many of his generation, started as an apprentice, which meant abuse by his boss, and that he passed on to others when he had power. He would never praise, only denigrate or criticize; the first time he did this to me, I was sure I would be fired, but, no, it was just his way. If he didn't say anything, you knew it was great. He also talked down to many of the immigrants from other societies who worked for him, many of them former teachers, doctors, etc., with more education than he had. So when I started SMB I vowed that it would be different, no fighting, no shouting or screaming. (We've had a few incidents but they basically resolved peacefully.)
Caitlin: What is the main challenge you face as a small business on Broadway?
Judith: Rent, rent, rent.
There is absolutely no protection for businesses from the whims of a landlord regarding commercial property. In our case, when Silver Moon opened, our neighborhood between W. 96th and W. 110 Streets was a neglected area. Below 96th Street were many co-ops, and fancier stores. Above 110th Street was Columbia University and all its potential customers. Our neighborhood was the black sheep, drug-infested side streets, etc. Now that has all changed, and the landlords are often doubling the rent. Academy Florist, in the neighborhood for over 100 years, had to move because rent was doubled. Bank Street Bookstore took over. Henry’s swallowed an enormous rent increase.
Caitlin: So what is the key to SMB’s sustainability?
Judith: I have always believed in “mom & pop” shops, i.e., small, personal stores where the customers are known and catered to. Too many business in our society care only about the bottom line. I started Silver Moon Bakery because I love to bake, and also love to communicate with people. Our counter staff, our bakers, almost everyone knows our customers, many by name, many by their favorite items, coffees, teas or sweets. I think that, plus my passion for searching out new products, rather than just being another business, is the main key to our sustainability. In fact, SMB is my culinary playground.
Caitlin: We are living a period of ever-widening economic disparity. Much has been made of this topic in the context of housing in New York. And one hears more and more about the loss of Mom & Pop businesses. You are one of the most successful examples -- and I think of you as a relative newcomer (despite that you've already been here for 17 years!) who seems to have the key to Mom & Pop success. Is that true?
Judith: No! See your question about main challenges. There are many people who would love to live and work in their own community, even here, on the UWS. But rents are prohibitively high. Look at the many vacant stores on Broadway – the landlords are waiting for a bank or a chain drugstore who can afford to amortize by having many branches, little labor or production costs, and a high profit margin.
Caitlin: Could you give readers an insight into how commercial rents work in this city?
Judith: There is no limit to what can be charged on commercial property. At one period, there was a form of commercial rent control, which expired in 1963. An article in the Fordham University Urban Law Journal discusses this:
“Expiration, Renewal, and Erosion of Commercial Rent Control
Although the legislature originally envisioned that the 1945 laws would expire in 1946, it reenacted them repeatedly until 1963, when it finally allowed the laws to expire. Throughout this period, the legislature embarked upon a program of gradual decontrol by amending the laws generally in accordance with the recommendations of the New York Temporary State Commission, which was created in 1948 to study the rental sector. Thus, what was originally a relatively strict system of commercial rent control was effectively weakened by the legislature's amendments. In 1963, after a series of unsuccessful court challenges by landlords, the legislature allowed the two commercial rent control laws to expire.”
[Source: Fordham University Urban Law Journal, Vol. XV, 1987, p. 664]
Judith: No, there is no protection.
Caitlin: How long is a typical lease?
Judith: It can be anywhere from 8 to 15 years. Ours was originally 10 years, with a 5 year extension. The current lease is for 7 years.
Caitlin: If your rent were to double from one lease to the next, what would your next move be?
Judith: I don’t know. We cannot afford higher rent, since our profit margin is quite low and the two ways to reduce costs are not acceptable: I will not reduce the quality of our ingredients, or the pay scale of our employees. We would probably look for another space, but the cost of moving our ovens and equipment might be so high, it would be unrealistic to move. In that case, we would have to close.
Caitlin: In addition to being a business owner, you are a longtime neighborhood resident. What do you think about the climate on Broadway?
Judith: It’s terrible. Chains typically charge more and pay employees less than neighborhood stores. Compare Suba’s prices with Duane Reade’s -- and Mr. Suba’s employees know their customers. The quality of neighborhood life decreases, becomes more impersonal. Empty storefronts are depressing and destroy neighborhoods.
Caitlin: Are there still commercial deals to be had on Amsterdam or above 96th Street?
Judith: I have noticed the new dining corridor, and hope the small restaurants succeed. So I think Amsterdam Avenue will attract diners, but I don’t think residents west of Amsterdam will readily go there to shop. When I first looked for a place to have a bakery, the manager of the old Gourmet Garage at 96th and Broadway told me: “people will not travel more than a few blocks at most to shop. But to dine is another matter.” I never forgot that.
Caitlin: What is your understanding of the term gentrification? Was Silver Moon’s appearance the product of gentrification? Will gentrification be the demise of businesses like Silver Moon?
Judith: When I moved to 105th Street and West End Avenue, the neighborhood was considered dangerous -- not West End, but the side streets. I actually took a few self-defense lessons before moving in, and learned to walk in the middle of the road when coming home at night. At that time I shopped at a used childrens’ clothing store on Broadway, bought sashimi from the little Japanese grocery shop on 105th off Broadway, drank café con leche at the Latino restaurant on Broadway & 108th Street [La Rosita], got my videos and dvds from Gary’s Movie Place, and my vegetables from the Korean greengrocer between 105th and 106th Street. All were small, neighborhood places. What became SMB was Loretta’s Lingerie, which had red flocked carpeting in the windows. I moved in because I was a musician, the rents were low and the walls were thick enough so that my practicing wouldn’t disturb others. Most of the musicians in my building who became successful moved out to more “gentrified” neighborhoods.
Now, with many old buildings co-oped by the landlords and newer buildings being offered as condominiums, median income has shot up as new tenants came in. Even rentals are now called, “luxury rental residences” in some cases. This is my understanding of gentrification – more money flowing into the neighborhood, the quality of life changing, goods becoming more expensive. The mix of working class, artists and middle class which existed when I first moved here, has totally changed. The druggy side street tenement apartments are now being rented to young, professional couples, and what was once a multi-cultural mix of Latino, Black and Caucasian has disappeared.
Caitlin: What would you like to be doing in five years?
Judith: I would like to travel more, explore the world -- and visit bakers and learn their ways of baking! Listen to music, hike, be with my grandchildren, meditate more and relax.
Caitlin: In 10 years?
Judith: The same!
To join the SMB mailing list, send Judith an email and she'll add you: firstname.lastname@example.org.