Tourists few, NY gift shops struggle but don't lose (heart)

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A shop keeper at a gift shop along 34th Street stands on the sidewalk waiting for customers, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, in New York. In souvenir shops from Times Square to the World Trade Center, shelves full of T-shirts and trinkets still love New York, as the slogan goes. But the proprietors wonder when their customers will, again. The coronavirus has altered many aspects of life and business in the United States' biggest city, and the pandemic is taking a major toll on the gifts-and-luggage stores that dot tourist-friendly areas. After setting records year after year since 2010, travel to New York has plummeted during the pandemic. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK – In souvenir shops from Times Square to the World Trade Center, shelves full of T-shirts and trinkets still (heart) New York. But the proprietors wonder when their customers will, again.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a voracious bite out of a slice of New York life as recognizable as a piece of pizza: the gifts-slash-luggage-and-sometimes-slash-electronics stores that dot tourist-friendly areas, offering Statue of Liberty figurines, toy taxis, NYPD ballcaps, Big Apple fridge magnets and anything and everything emblazoned with the famous “I (HEART) NY” logo.

Like the miniature-skyline snow globes they sell, the shops are a microcosm of a city that has thrived on drawing visitors from around the world and now is feeling their near-absence.

“It's a fight for survival,” Ali Zaidi said one recent morning at his shop two blocks from the World Trade Center. And with coronavirus cases rising and winter approaching, what would normally be the build-up to a busy holiday season instead is ”getting worse and worse, day by day."

Before the pandemic, his Broadway Gifts store generally got hundreds of customers a day — many tourists, but also local office workers looking for gloves, cell phone chargers or other practical items, he said. Now, with few out-of-town visitors and many locals still working from home, an average day might bring 25 to 50 people and $300 or less in sales, a small fraction of business as usual, says Zaidi, who has another souvenir store in midtown Manhattan.

After being closed for more than three months after the city shut down nonessential retail in March, Zaidi says he's used all the business' savings to keep it going, while getting some breaks from his landlords and keeping his staff as small as possible — it's just him and three relatives. Still, he had to cut back sharply on ordering Christmas merchandise, he said.

“I wish I could provide more to my customers, so they could have a nice Christmas with nice ornaments on their trees,” said Zaidi, who says he's in the the business not just for a livelihood, but because selling gifts “brings joy to others.”

Nonetheless, he's says he's “very optimistic” that the pandemic will eventually be quashed and business will recover.