GARMANY’S GAMBIT PAYS OFF IN DIAMONDS

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If any one person outside of Tiffany & Co. is responsible for the jeweler’s decision to open a gleaming outpost in downtown Red Bank today, it’s Larry Garmany, who has a habit of making high-risk business moves that tend to baffle even his closest advisers.

Back in 1989, for example, after 15 years on Manhattan’s Upper Side, he decided to open a store in Red Bank. He bought 17 Broad Street, the former Clayton and Magee Colorest store, and then drove down with his architect and accountant to show them the new home for his own high-end men’s clothing shop.

“We get out of the car, and my architect looks left, and he looks right,” Garmany recalled last week. “And he says, ‘Larry, this is ghost town. What the hell have you done here?’ Only he didn’t use the word ‘hell.'”

Undeterred, the recent transplant to Monmouth County forged ahead. Making money in Dead Bank was “tough” early on, he says, but the store survived and added some momentum to a nascent recovery along Broad Street.

Then, in 1997, with the town’s bounceback in third or fourth gear, he decided to buy the former Red Bank Post Office and Roots department store building opposite Red Bank Catholic High School. Some people thought Garmany was truly nuts: he was more than tripling the size of his store while at the same time retaining ownership of the building he was vacating. His aim: to attract a tenant with customers from the same upper-income demographic he catered to.

He held out for several years until he got what he was after: the women’s clothing store CoCo Pari.

Garmany reprised his high-wire act yet again two years ago, when he bought the former Steinbach and Bon-Ton department store building at 117 Broad — a giant, featureless cakebox of a structure that he spent millions to refurbish — and in the process went from 10,000 square feet to 40,000 of selling area, adding women’s clothing to boot.

“That,” says former Mayor Ed McKenna, “was the biggest leap of faith of all.”

But continuing the pattern, Garmany upped the stakes himself, setting out to lure Tiffany, which regards Greenwich, Conn. and West Palm Beach, Fla. as the kinds of small towns best suited for its needs, to set up shop at his last address.

The payoff, delivered today with Tiffany’s opening, has yielded not only one of the world’s most coveted retail tenants for Garmany the landlord, but holds out the prospect of steady, carriage-trade traffic capable of buttressing his own exclusive business.

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In the process, for better or for worse, the opening has lifted Red Bank’s commercial profile as few other single gestures could.

Garmany says there was really only one tenant he ever had in mind.

“Our goal was always to lease, and our goal was always to have Tiffany,” he says, his precise enunciation tinged with the sounds of both his native Cuba and Brooklyn, where he spent his teen years. “That’s the only tenant I was thinking of.”

redbankgreen: That’s putting a lot of eggs in one basket.

Garmany: Yes.

redbankgreen: Are you a gambler?

Garmany: I would say most business [owners] are gamblers. It was a risk in that we waited and waited and waited, not only because Tiffany would have been the ideal tenant, but would have been the ideal neighbor for us. But that was part of the plan.

The plan he explains, was to attract a retailer that could draw customers who’d fit the profile of the typical Garmany customer: people from the top two percentile of income-earners who like to shop in an atmosphere that indulges their every whim.

The courtship began more than four years ago, before Garmany’s purchase of the former Steinbach property. He says the Fifth Avenue jeweler was hesitant at first. Its executives were concerned about the shortage of upper-shelf, nationally known chain stores in town. But later, he says, after the new Garmany store opened in October 2005, Tiffany softened to a wait-and-see posture.

When Tiffany execs finally visited the new Garmany emporium a year ago, they immediately started talking deal, he says. But they swore him to secrecy, wanting to make the announcement themselves, on their own schedule. The lease was announced last March, about seven months after it was agreed to.

Elisabeth Ames, a Tiffany group vice president, says the company was already attracted to Red Bank because of what she says was “a strong customer base” here. “But when we came and saw the success of Mr. Garmany’s business, that certainly helped cement our decision,” she says.

“We are very happy to have them as a tenant, and we are very very happy to have them as a neighbor,” Garmany says.

“In the 19 years we’ve been in Red Bank, we’ve never had another store feeding us customers. Whatever we did was on our own merits. So now, Tiffany is going to be feeding us customers, and we’re going to be feeding them customers.”

At an opening reception in the Tiffany store last night, McKenna was clearly in deep admiration mode of the high-stakes poker game that Garmany played.

“He had hundreds of offers for this building,” McKenna said. “But he wasn’t going to let just any tenant in.”

Garmany declines to name names, but says most of those he turned away as prospective tenants have ample presence in malls across the country.

The reason for the brush off: “Because then we’d be just like them,” he says of the malls. “It’s basically like an Elvis Presley movie: you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”

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“It doesn’t take a lot of customers to make a good day here,” Garmany tells redbankgreen during an interview in his spartan second-floor office.

Just outside, the women’s department glows under the natural light of a giant skylight, with ample acreage between stylishly outfitted mannequins. Downstairs, crisply-dressed salesmen watched over a series of in-store boutiques dedicated to brand names such as Burberry, Brioni, Paul Smith and Brunello Cucinelli. (Also on the ground level is a free bar where it’s never not happy hour: if a customer wants a cappuccino or a Corona, all he or she needs to do is nod.)

Both times we visited in the past week, Alvin Abell, an anesthesiologist from Colts Neck, was shopping there. He praises the store for its “impeccable customer service — it’s like having your own personal shopper.” And if you catch Garmany at sale time, he says, the prices aren’t really that intimidating.

Garmany brought Abell as a guest to last night’s Tiffany event. “When a customer walks in here, we own them for life,” he says. “They become our friends.”

Garmany, who’s 54, is a grandson of a wealthy Cuban sugar cane farmer and the son of a movie theater owner who initially believed Fidel Castro’s regime wouldn’t last three months. But then the family’s businesses were confiscated as part of Castro’s nationalization effort, and 12-year-old Larry’s father realized the son would soon be of conscription age. Laureano determined to get his son and the rest of the family out of the country.

They came to the United States with one of Larry’s sisters and some other relatives by boat; they’d paid fishermen to take them to Florida. Larry’s mother and two sisters were left behind, but were able to follow legally some time later. The family settled in Brooklyn, joining an aunt.

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“We came here in Brooklyn on August 29, 1965,” Garmany says, “and the very next day, my dad…”

He pauses, becomes choked up, and briefly cries. The day after their arrival, he continues, his father took a job as a dishwasher at a hotel.

“We came here with empty pockets,” he says. “But like they say, God bless America.”

Foregoing college, Garmany borrowed $10,000 and, with the father of a friend, opened a men’s clothing store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He was 21 years old and already married two years.

The date: November 9, 1974, 33 years ago today.

From the start, it was high-end merchandise, and the store succeeded well enough that Garmany later opened a shoe store with his father. Eventually, the clothing business was expanded to include a store in Summit, which operated from 1994 to 2005, when Garmany lost the lease. By then, though, he and his own son, Johnell, were deep into the project to remodel the present store, and decided that one big one was just fine.

Garmany co-owns the business with 33-year-old Johnell, of Tinton Falls. The elder Garmany lives in Colts Neck.

After 19 years downtown, Larry Garmany is familiar with the concern expressed by many borough residents and others: that the district has taken a steep turn away from affordability. But he sees the downtown as having a great variety of stores, with more coming in.

Moreover, even though Tiffany’s customers are from the upper crust, he says, it will draw in shoppers for smaller jewelers such as Leonardo, Hamilton, Ballew, which carry different lines of merchandise.

“It’s going to increase traffic to those other jewelry stores,” he says. “Tiffany is going to be feeding customers throughout Broad Street.” He cites the Americana Manhasset mall on Long Island, where high-end retailers such as Coach, Donna Karan and yes, Tiffany co-exist with mid-priced stores such as the Gap and Banana Republic.

At the same time, he’s also confident that “other big name businesses will follow,” he says. He’ll need at least two more, because there are empty spaces roughly 1,400 square feet in size flanking Tiffany in the 75-year-old building, which served as a post office from from 1931 to 1965 and, during World War II, had a military recruiting station in the basement.

For now, though, Red Bank has it’s own little two-store Rodeo Drive.

redbankgreen: What if, for some reason, it doesn’t work out here for Tiffany? Do they take you down with them?

Garmany: No. Remember, we’ve been here 19 years without Tiffany, holding our own water. I mean, it would be sad. But that’s a big ‘if.’ They’re going to make it big.”

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