The value of the local business person, someone familiar with client needs, but who also had to contend with huge tax and regulatory costs, was recently illustrated here.
A dear old Queens neighborhood institution just died. Many people in this corner of the city are sorry to see it go because there goes a part of their lives.
Thousands of grieving customers are mourning the death of Metropolitan Pharmacy, on Metropolitan Avenue in Kew Gardens.
Customers say they love Metropolitan Pharmacy’s kindly owner Ira Lisogorsky.
“We will miss our Metro Pharmacy family and its wonderful staff,” says Rosemary Sherman, a longtime customer who lives a block from the 40-year old neighborhood drug store.
Sherman says Ira was more than a pharmacist; he was a friend who dispensed personal care for 40 years.
“No matter how busy he was, he would peek out from behind the counter to greet you. How’s your son doing; is your husband feeling better,” she says.
The Friend of Animals and Humans
Sherman would often come in with dog Sully, who Ira would treat with a biscuit. Ira also fed birds in front of his store and once saved a bird that lost its way in his store. This caring theme was repeated by many customers.
“I needed some medicine but my insurance card wasn’t going through for some reason because of a technical glitch,” says Suzanne Hall, a longtime customer in Kew Gardens.
“Ira knew how much I needed the medicine, gave me it immediately and told me that we would settle the insurance issue later on,” she said. Hall also says on another occasion that Ira once kept his pharmacy open for an extra half hour so she could obtain a needed medicine. (Note: The ever-comely Ms. Hall is the husband of the author).
The “Doctor” of Kew Gardens
To customers, Ira’s Metropolitan Pharmacy was more than a place to get medicine.
“Many times,” a longtime customer noted, “Ira would give me advice, or recommend an over-the-counter treatment and always with a calm, reassuring presence for any medical or physical problem or worry I might have. The result is I’ve rarely had to see a doctor in 13 1/2 years,” says Judith Oringer, a Kew Gardens resident whose mother Estelle was also a customer.
“Ira has been the doctor of Kew Gardens for me and so many others in the community,” she added.
The Singing Druggist
Ira and Estelle had a unique relationship, Oringer said. “My mother had taught Hebrew music in yeshivas, and she and Ira would sing the Hebrew songs together,” Oringer says.
His customers doubt that Ira’s personal service will be duplicated anywhere.
Lisogorsky, who fills thousands of prescriptions, says he has problems with drug companies as well as regulatory and city policies.
“The city doesn’t care about us,” he said. “They look at us as a cash cow and yet it is small businesses that made this city.” He cleans his sidewalk each day, but says “if the wind blows, suddenly I have a fine.”
Lisogorsky also said other factors pushing him out include the popularity of online ordering combined with “the drug companies screwing us so I make almost nothing on prescriptions.”
The Indifference of a Government
New York City has many small businesses, but a business expert says city government often hasn’t a clue about their problems.
According to Thomas Grech, executive director of the Queens County Chamber of Commerce, “The city doesn’t get the challenges of small businesses, “such as paying a minimum $15-a-hour wage. It just thinks of small businesses as something to tax.”
The problem, Grech added, is that most city officials have never run a business and have no understanding of how it works.
“They (city officials) don’t know what it like to meet a payroll and pay exorbitant medical costs.” He complains that the small businesses don’t have the lobbying power to organize. Grech says many local officials understand the problem, but city officials don’t.
Dr. Nabil Salib, a doctor who recently established the myDoc Urgent Care Center in Forest Hills, said that “lower taxes and rents” are needed.
Don’t Forget Ben’s
Metropolitan Pharmacy’s demise comes almost exactly a year since the death of a fabled Queens small business, Ben’s Best, a kosher deli along Queens Blvd. in Rego Park that dated back to 1945. The kosher deli, which once numbered in the thousands here, is now down to a few dozen here in New York City.
Ben’s Best’ owner complained it closed because the city changed its traffic rules on Queens Blvd. City officials defended the rules.
Ben Best’s owner Jay Parker said the city’s new traffic plans hurt his business, reducing Queens Boulevard’s parking spots by 200 and creating more bike lanes but also making it impossible for many elderly customers to get to Ben’s.
City officials said the area had many buses and subways.
City Says It Cares
Asked about Metropolitan Pharmacy’s plight, a city official said New York does care about small businesses.
NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS) says the city has some 230,000 small businesses. It defines a small business as an establishment of 125 employees or less. An SBS spokesperson spokeswoman said commercial rents and the growth of e-commerce are the biggest reasons small businesses fail.
“We want small businesses to survive,” she said, adding that SBS launched a Web portal specifically to help small businesses, [www1.nyc.gov/site/sbs/index.page]
SBS officials said among the services they are offering is a commercial lease program connecting small business owners with free legal services through a dedicated attorney. The free legal services include help negotiating a lease, resolving landlord issues, responding to an eviction notice and negotiating a lease renewal, SBS officials said.
These services are designed “to reduce the burden of bureaucracy and promote equity of access for the city’s over 230,000 small businesses,” said SBS Commissioner Gregg Bishop.
City officials said that among the various help services for small business that can be found through its SBS portal are a network of seven NYC Business Solutions Centers across the five boroughs, which offer free business courses in multiple languages.
I have lived in New York City most of my life. In my 20s and 30s I worked in small towns, pursuing a career as a newspaper/radio reporter. I returned to the Big Apple in the mid 1980s. While I always believed starting a small business, or any business, was difficult, I think in recent years things are getting more and more difficult.
In the process of doing a story for the New York Post on the closing of Metropolitan Pharmacy, it was nice to run across a few city officials who seemed to be interested in small businesses. However, I wonder if their counsels have much effect on the power brokers at City Hall.
Our municipal government is often a distant place. It is normally far from many of many of the outer borough neighborhoods that it governs. Add to that many city-wide officials were born in Manhattan or were born in the outer boroughs but moved to Manhattan. I believe they have little understanding of the Highbridges in the Bronx, Cypress Hills in Brooklyn or Richmond Hills in Queens, no less the New Dorps of Staten Island.
It is often an example of dysfunctional government that cries out for a re-examination of the nature of government in big cities. I believe this cries out for decentralization as I have argued in previous columns on the closing of Ben’s Best:
“Ben’s Best Destruction-A Reminder of Why Americans Need to Rediscover Jefferson and Decentralization: Lord Acton, along with the traditional friends of limited government, believed in limited government” [CLICK HERE]
“Ben’s Best, Kosher Deli, Queens Institution, Dies: A symbol of countless other small businesses driven to a premature death by relentless regs and taxes imposed by a distant, uncaring, city government.” [CLICK HERE]
The comments of the SBS officials on Metropolitan’s passing are nice.
But SBS makes up a very small part of a massive city government that taxes and regulates many small businesses to death. By contrast, the people at the top of city government, the elected officials making policy, almost always have about as much experience running a small business as I do batting clean-up for the New York Yankees.
“Oh, They’ll Figure It Out”
This lack of experience might have been best summed up a few years ago by New York City’s now part-time mayor Bill de Blasio, who now spends a lot of time out of town campaigning for president. He was once asked about the costs of a recent small business mandate that many small businesses had complained they couldn’t afford.
The mayor’s facile answer summed up the attitude of much of the political class, both left and right: I remember him saying of the small businesses, “Oh, they’re good at figuring it. They’ll figure it out.”
When I heard it, I could only think of one thing: When did the mayor ever run a business?
This lack of understanding might have been best summed by former U.S. Senator and failed presidential candidate George McGovern. I remember McGovern because I cast my first presidential vote for him in the 1972 election. Although I disagreed with his economics, I hated the Vietnam War as yet another example of our superfluous, we’re the self-appointed policeman of the world, war, which I have written about in these pages.
Swept out of the U.S. Senate in the Reagan landslide of 1980, McGovern started a small business and then received an education. He later said that he “had no idea” how difficult it was to succeed in a business owing to countless taxes and regulations.
Too bad McGovern didn’t have that background before he served in Congress and started passing laws—such as often unrealistic price control and minimum wage laws—that vitally affect so many businesses.
It’s easy, for example, for a pol to play to the crowd and tell small businesses that they have to pay $15 an hour minimum wage or some other popular wage. But what happens when the business isn’t generating the money to justify that pay scale? Should the business just run in the red and suck it up? Politicians don’t face those hard choices that come from meeting payrolls and paying tax bills etc.
A business owner should be free to pay what he or she thinks is justified because it is the business owner—not the professional politician—who risks capital, monetary or intellectual as well as the greatest human capital of all: his or her time.
How Things Get Better
There is an opportunity cost in every career choice we make.
Is it better to risk one’s savings and start a business or stick to being an employee, a generally less risky venture?
How bad is the anti-business mentality of New York City?
I know a Queens business owner who has run a historic deli that goes back almost a century. It is ostensibly a big success.
But press this small business owner and you will encounter a weltzschmertz suffered by many small New York City business owners. Over the years, after facing myriad tax and regulatory problems, this owner once said to me, “Greg, I tell my employees who want to start a business, not to do it. Go get a nice, safe civil service job; you’re better off that way.”
(By the way, this is not to criticize hard working civil service workers. It is only to say that without a thriving private sector, there can be no effective public sector, whether we are speaking of police, fire and garbage collection services).
Do most Americans understand that what is happening to this typical small business owner is not the best thing for our country?
I pray that they do. For today and for a million tomorrows; tomorrows that I hope will include a birth of new Metropolitan Pharmacies that are essential economic building blocks. They are vital to our future and the future of Americans unborn.
As a student of economic history, I believe every economy that has ever prospered, prospered because a lot of people started small businesses, especially women and minorities, even people who weren’t necessarily fans of capitalism!
I remember reading a book of Irving Kristol’s essays of how the wives of poor rabbis, in order for the family to survive, would do what?
They’d start a small business. And this was even though, Kristol noted, there was the strong democratic socialist tradition in many Jewish communities. Apparently, even collectivists can see the virtues of private property.
No economy I know of has ever prospered when everyone decided that the ultimate goal in life was to get a nice, safe, government job. It is an unsustainable model for any growing economy. That’s because governments don’t generate wealth. Individuals, working hard and investing capital—putting capital at risk when they could be spending more on their own consumption—do.
Economies and standards of living go up not because of some tax increase or regulatory mandate, often pushed by some career politician who hasn’t got a clue what will be the effect of his or her action except the expectation that more taxes will put money in government treasuries (And by the way, that isn’t exactly true of higher taxes. Most of us, without studying economics for ten minutes, know in our guts that higher taxes discourage thrift and economic advancement).
Economies improve, history tells us, because millions of men and women take chances and start businesses.
Many of them will inevitably fail. But they should not fail because of the deleterious, destructive effects of government policies, formulated by people who often know nothing about business. And, in many cases, this political governing class is actually hostile to business. However, their actions are often self-destructive.
The anomaly is that many of those pols want bigger government welfare programs because they see it as the road to electoral victories. But who do they think will pay for those programs? Santa Claus?
Calling for Millions of “Forgotten Men”
It is the thousands of Ira Lisogorskys who build a city or a state of a country’s economy. Our ruling class—and by that I mean the career pols of our two major parties who hog most of the offices and ensure that third parties are kept out—often bay “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Often their howlings come at the hustings as they try to convince us that they have the silver bullet to achieve economic growth. Yet often the best recipe for a strong economy is as simple as keeping taxes and spending low (Paging the history of Hong Kong since the end of the World War. Once a pathetic colony of the British that couldn’t even supply its own fresh water. A British colonial official after World War II enacted policies of incredibly low taxes and what happened? Today Hong Kong is an economic jewel that even Communist China doesn’t want to screw up).
So where do our Tweeds and George Washington Plunkitts think those jobs originate?
Hint for our hired help in lower Manhattan and our Potomac Poloniuses: Most jobs don’t come from pols. They come from millions of “forgotten men,” (Philosopher William Graham Sumner’s term).
They come from hard working men and women who risk capital to start a business—often their lifetime savings along with loans—and then these entrepreneurs get taxed and regulated to death. And when they go, there go lots of “jobs, jobs, jobs!” Metropolitan Pharmacy employed dozens of workers.
And when you take jobs, or almost anything for granted such as economic liberty, that’s usually the time you lost it as our city, state and nation head further down F.A. Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom.”
Let’s turn back before it is too late. It’s time for all of us to understand the nature of economic success, where and how it is created and how as well as why it is essential to our children and our scions. We need to recognize and understand it before more Metropolitan Pharmacies go vaya con Dios.