Photo: Mich Cardin; Model: Kayla/State Management; Fashion: courtesy of Consignment Brooklyn
Dec 24, 2020
A photo ode to our mom-and-pops
Honoring the history and legacy of Brooklyn’s small businesses at the end of an especially challenging year.
Stepping into Williamsburg institution Bamonte’s is like entering a time capsule. The warmly-lit, crimson dining hall with nostalgic images lining the walls and fresh ricotta pie looming in the dessert case, will have you aching for your nonna. And if you’re a third generation Brooklynite, it’s likely she was a regular.
Pasquale and Rose Bamonte opened the restaurant (once known as Liberty Hall) in 1900 after immigrating from Naples, Italy and it’s been in the family ever since. As one of the oldest New York City businesses still operating, it has withstood the impact of war, economic recessions—even this year’s Covid lockdown.
“Many generations of the same families come here. We consider ourselves a home away from home—eating here is like meeting in our living room,” says Lisa Bamonte, great grand-daughter to the founders, who admits that the Covid crisis has been more challenging than previous hardships.
Loyal patrons aren’t rushing to dine in the restaurant’s heated outdoor area, built specifically for the city’s indoor ban. And Bamonte is still undecided about signing on to popular delivery companies like Seamless or Grubhub due to the establishment’s old-school relationship with their clientele.
“People come here for the sense of family and overall atmosphere,” says Bamonte. “We like to give you a hug and ask how your mother’s doing.”
Café con Libros
While restaurants rely on outdoor seating and take-out, other businesses have been forced to get creative to stay afloat. With mandated closings in March and many residents still reluctant to shop in-person since the reopening, online retailers like Amazon and big brands have thrived, while independent vendors have shuttered or are suffering.
Kalima Desuze, founder of Café con Libros—a self-styled feminist bookstore and coffee shop nestled between Prospect Heights and Crown Heights—weathered the lockdown with her full-time social work role and success of a convenient ‘no-contact’ online subscription program.
As an Afro-Latina female who spends her days working with women and marginalized communities, her brick and mortar doesn’t shy away from these demographics. Book titles are proudly feminist and race-centric and the children’s section boasts young black and brown faces.
“I’m raising a Black boy and want him to see what women look like across the board, ethnically, religiously diverse,” Desuze said. “Independent bookstores are places that reflect the culture and fabric of the local community—large chains aren’t able to provide that kind of intimacy.”
If Manhattan is at all a precursor, then gentrification, rent battles and Covid’s impact could mean more national bank outlets and Starbucks storefronts in Brooklyn and fewer family-owned, independent gems where diversity has always been a stand-out trait.
You can spend a day traversing the globe just by taking the subway a few stops—take-out from New Ruan’s or The Food Sermon, Syrian sweets from Damascus, a last-minute gift from Peace and Riot, and your brunch needs from Borough Park’s kosher markets.
“Brooklyn is diversity. We live in a microcosm of what America is supposed to be,” says Peter Shelsky, co-owner of Shelsky’s of Brooklyn, which specializes in culturally Jewish foods. “[Our customers] are Jews who grew up eating this food. We sell nostalgia, after all. They are foodies, young, not so young… they’re people who celebrate Christmas with copious amounts of smoked fish and caviar. We’ve got lots of regulars. They’ve become our friends.”
Addressing the Covid crisis and lockdown, Shelsky says, “It was a frightening and confusing time. The biggest challenge was adapting to be a mostly online business.”
Eva Dayton, owner of Consignment Brooklyn—a more high-end boutique than consignment shop—has relied heavily on her website and social media presence, particularly in recent months.
“It was a game changer for me,” says Dayton, who has been in business for 17 years. During the lockdown, Dayton posted meticulous photos of clothing and shoes on her Instagram account @consignmentbrooklyn, popping into the store for merchandise once orders were placed and shipping them to customers. “I use my social platform to constantly communicate with my team and customers. Without it, it would have been difficult to stay alive.”
If small-scale entrepreneurs—like Dayton—continue to creatively drive consumers away from chains and back in their direction, and New Yorkers (and visitors) make the effort to support local vendors in-person, online or in any capacity—there’s hope to save the backbone of the borough.
“Communities thrive from small businesses—they’re part of the characteristics of each neighborhood and keep those neighborhoods alive,” says Bamonte. “I’m proud of my heritage and fortunate that my family worked hard to give us a better life—and I’m happy to continue their traditions.”