Avi Ghandi, a gregarious Indian immigrant and owner of Center Lane Stationery in Levittown, still laughs with his customers despite holding a going-out-of-business sale before his decade-old shop closes down on Christmas Eve.
When his patrons first heard that he had thoughts of shuttering his windows for good, they organized in June a cash mob, which is like a flash mob, but instead of dancing, participants surprise struggling businesses with a rush of much-needed customers.
The grassroots economic stimulus turned into a short documentary, Cash Mob for Avi, which was screened at the Big Apple Film Festival last month and made headlines worldwide. Supporters even donated about $20,000 via fundly, a fundraising website—but it still wasn’t enough to save the shop stocked with balloons, greeting cards and gifts.
“The economy is hurting really bad,” said Ghandi, who has worked seven days weekly running the shop for the past 10 years.
“I have to pull the curtain,” he told the Press between customers. “I have no choice.”
Like many small business owners, he partly blames big box stores such as Walmart for siphoning off customers. Privately held office-supply, stationery and gift retailers nationwide have seen profits swing from positive to negative in recent years, according to a Forbes magazine analysis. The industry has also suffered from customers shopping online as well as their replacing traditional greeting cards with digital alternatives such as web-based e-cards, according to Ghandi and the report.
Despite the downturn, Ghandi remains upbeat, thanks in part to the love his community has shown over the past six months. The movie may not have won awards when it was screened at Tribeca Cinemas in Manhattan on Nov. 6, but it won viewers’ hearts.
“There was a real buzz of emotion in the room during the film,” video producer Liz Morris said afterward. “There is clearly something about Avi and the story of Levittown love that people connect with. Everyone can think of an Avi in their life.”
The documentary follows a day in the life of the 63-year-old shopkeeper and his wife, Bharati, who recently underwent cancer treatments. On film, both are overcome with emotion amid the flood of customers. His friends and regulars, Craig and Celeste Hamilton Dennis, organized the cash mob—and filmed the outpouring of support.
The video now has more than a half a million views on YouTube. Half of the $20,000 the mob raised was collected in a single day, according to the organizers. They will still donate the $20,000 to Avi Ghandi, who has yet to find a buyer for the business he bought for $200,000. Instead of helping him stay in business, they hope the donation will smooth his transition to another job—he recently applied to be a school translator.
“I wish this story had a Hollywood ending,” Celeste said. “I wish I could say that the cash mob saved his store and swayed his landlord to lower the rent. But the reality is that him staying there isn’t sustainable.
“There’s going to be yet another orange ‘For Rent’ sign on Center Lane Village Green,” she continued. “It’s heartbreaking, and a huge loss to the community. The way he cares about his customers, listens to them and makes them feel like they matter is really something special to witness. They’ve been crying left and right upon hearing the news.”