BAY RIDGE – A Bay Ridge couple will be closing their beloved shop after 34 years, no longer able to afford rent.
ZEN is a small gift shop located on Third Avenue between 76th and 77th Street. The entire block is lined up with mom and pop shops, ranging from a nail salon, a café, a dance studio, and a florist. This store looks how it always has for decades, except this time there’s a “Store for Rent” sign plastered on the orange sign.
“The sign has been up for about ten days,” Edward Wong, the co-owner said. “Rent is killing small businesses.”
But it wasn’t always like that. The store initially opened as “Yizui” in 1984. Edward’s wife, Susan, had a daughter at the time and was a stay-at-home mom. She thought, perhaps she could do something. So, she opened a “mom and papa store,” she said. It was then known for its wicker furniture and baskets. Now it’s known for its variety of candles, picture frames, Christmas ornaments, and beautiful rocks that can be given as gifts.
“We had wooden furniture for a while, too. But the cost soon made it hard to sell. Everyone starts buying IKEA, so that’s another change,” Edward said. “Big stores just swallow up the small ones. Sometimes, the unique items we used to carry, you might even find them at Rite Aid these days.”
Once upon a time, their candles were very popular. “Past tense,” Susan laughed. “The Yankee Candle Company is selling them online. How do you match the manufacturer?”
On this particular cold day, the shop smelled like Christmas, while songs like Carol of the Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and 12 Days of Christmas played in the background.
Susan and Edward, a very sweet couple, didn’t want to talk about themselves. Fifteen minutes into the interview, they finally caved in.
“We don’t talk this much,” Edward laughed. “We’re very quiet. That’s why the name is ZEN. It’s just like what it implies: peace and tranquility.”
Edward was born in the US, while Susan came from China. They both explained that even after having three children, they never hired a nanny.
“We took care of our children ourselves while working at the same time,” Susan said.
The couple has lived in Bay Ridge for 27 years now. Edward acknowledged that the neighborhood hasn’t changed much except for the mix of people.
“A lot of stores just come and go. I think originally it started off with a very few Asians; mostly Norwegian, Irish, mostly white folks. We’re probably one of the very few Asian families that moved here back in the 80s. Then the Russians started coming. Now it’s a mix of everyone.”
Susan and Edward work seven days a week from 11 am to 7 pm. But that will change after December 31.
“We’re semi-retiring on the 31st,” Edward said. “I say ‘semi-retiring’ because at some point you just want to work again.”
Susan said their old customers have been coming to their shop all morning to bid farewell.
“Our customers… we’re very lucky. They’ve been very good. They came to say goodbyes because they’re sad we’re leaving. It was more than I expected.”
And they are not wrong. During the 35 minutes in the shop, a customer came in. Here’s how the exchange went.
Customer: “I came here today because someone wrote about you on Facebook.”
She turned to Edward. “Did you know that?”
Edward laughed. “Yeah, my daughter.”
Customer: “I read it and said ‘OK, I gotta go here.’ I came here five minutes before ten and you weren’t there and I said I was going to come back.”
Edward smiled very hard. “I didn’t know we were loved that much.”
Customer: “You must be doing something right if you’re here for 34 years.”
Edward: “We try. I always said the best business is an honest business. Don’t cheat anybody.”
Customer: “That’s your best bet. And you’ve treated people decently and took care of them and helped them.”
During their semi-retirement, Edward said he plans on catching up on things he has to catch up on. He also wants to find time for him and Susan, something they don’t have much of right now. And despite a decline in customers for the past five years, Edward acknowledged that it was a good run.
“There’s always going to be room for mom and pop shops,” Edward said. “It’s just a matter of how long they can last. It takes money, it takes technology, and it’s all about the shopping experience.”
Like the customer said, if they lasted 34 years, they must have done something right.