Among a maze of display shelves that hold every type of New York City paraphernalia, Alper Tutus, 75, sits near the register. To his left is a display of Flatiron Building figurines, in varying sizes and hues of silver. The shelf below holds toilet brushes, the handles of which are Donald Trump’s face, and the orange bristles his hair. Regardless of the variety of souvenirs in Tutus’ store, Memories of New York, there are few to no customers around purchase them.
New York City has seen no disaster that has eliminated tourism like the coronavirus pandemic. Two days after 9/11, Broadway was open again. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, tourists continued to visit in droves. The city is slowly opening its attractions since it was shut down, minus Broadway, but the streets are still devoid of travelers at its normal capacity. It’s largely for the safety of tourists and locals alike, but the pandemic is taking its toll on those who depend on tourism for their livelihood.
“Business is bad,” Tutus said. The store is quiet except for the gentle classical music playing over the trinkets and keepsakes.
Tutus considers himself to be one the original souvenir shops before it became an industry. When he first came to New York in 1985 on a trip with his family from Istanbul, Turkey, they had planned to stay for only 16 days, but they loved New York so much that they simply never went back. Tutus imported leather goods and other items and sold them from a cart. His family moved to a house in Long Island where he still lives today. Tutus first opened Memories inside the World Trade Center before relocating in 1994 to his current store between Fifth Ave and Broadway in the Flatiron District.
“In that time, the New York souvenir things were very little,” he said. “Very few stores. Now we have thousands of them.”
Tutus was “cautious” about his business. Other souvenir sellers opened large stores and franchises around the city and Tutus said he didn’t have their “capital and vision.” Even though he was more reserved in his business, he prides his reputation for being one of the first.
“They did very well. They expanded, they bought the building,” he says. “But still, I’m the guy that gets the credit.” It’s not a big deal, he adds, laughing sheepishly.
His business has been running for 35 years in Manhattan. Then, in the first week of March, like every other non-essential business, it closed. While other retailers shifted their focus to online business, Tutus didn’t. “Which was big mistake,” he laughs, his whole body shaking jovially, his face reddening as he recalls his missteps. Tutus worked 14-16 hours a day on the brick and mortar business. For an online platform, his typical approach to business didn’t translate.
“Hard work is not enough,” he said. “You have to be very systematic, smart, [make] adjustments.”
2020 offered big hopes for tourism before the pandemic hit. In 2019, New York saw a record number of 67 million tourists, and this year was estimated to be the same. In a typical NYC summer, hotel occupancy is at 90 percent. This July hotels were at 37 percent. The hotels, the airlines, the attractions, Broadway and the souvenir stores in New York all work in tandem together, one giant machine pumping tourists from one to another — a machine that COVID-19 shut down and unplugged. In an effort to revive that part of the economy, the city launched the “All In NYC: Neighborhood Getaways” program to encourage local New Yorkers to be tourists in their own city and help supplement the loss. But local New Yorkers are not typically the ones who buy little yellow cabs or Statue of Liberty figurines.
As soon Mayor Bill de Blasio allowed him to, Tutus reopened Memories. He’s behind on a lot of payments: rent, utility bills, and he says if it weren’t for his retirement fund, he would be penniless. The $150,000 from the government helped. When he started falling behind on rent (he says it’s approximately $70,000 a month), his landlord told him not to panic.
The souvenirs in his shop are personal to Tutus. They are the bridge from New York City to the tourists, he says, something that people look back on fondly. “These wonderful things, souvenir type of things, is important to the city’s reputation.”
Despite bills stacking up and the store empty of customers, Tutus is sanguine. He laughs a lot, his smile stretching his face mask and threatening the integrity of the straps behind his ears. “We have survived 35 years, and we have a good name, I am so proud.”
Tutus says the tourists will be back — his prediction is next spring — but New York will have to be patient.
“This is not the kind of issue to jump over and to get everything clear and perfect,” he said. “We’re going to boom. I’m not ‘optimistic’ — I see the picture. It’s gonna be better than ever.”
A longtime customer named Phil Nerges enters the store, and Tutus greets him warmly, his hospitable voice filling the otherwise empty store. Nerges comes to the city from Mattawa, New Jersey for Memories’ postcard collection — some of Tutus’ best-selling items. Negres sends them to people who are stuck at home because of the pandemic, often the elderly, to make sure “somebody remembers that they exist.” He says that Tutus has the largest selection of postcards he’s ever seen. The men chat for a while, and Nerges buys several cards. Tutus gives him a free mask on his way out of the store.
“We have survived 35 years, and we have a good name, I am so proud.” Memories store owner Alper Tutus