FAIR HAVEN: LAIRD’S GETTING SQUEEZED OUT

budnicks brounley 071116Bob and Rose Budnick outside their store with longtime customer Katherine Brounley. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

retail churn smallTucked into the corner of a Fair Haven strip mall, marked with minimal signage, Laird’s Stationery is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. But locals know it, and know it as a jam-packed emporium of not only paper goods and office supplies, but everything from backpacks to wiffle bats.

“The register never stops ringing,” owner Bob Budnick said early this week, as three customers converged at the front desk to pay for their purchases. “This store is woven into the fabric of a lot of people’s lives.”

But the register is about to stop ringing, here at least, and the business may be doomed, said Budnick and his wife.

fh laird's 071116Often compared to the former Prown’s shop in Red Bank, Laird’s carries thousands of inventory items. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

fh acme center 062916 2The 2.5-acre Fair Haven Shopping Center in which a stationery store has operated under various owners since the 1950s changed hands almost two years ago, passing from the local Schwarz family to an entity called Fair Haven Retail LLC  for $5.8 million.

The Budnicks, and other tenants in the center, say they don’t know for sure if Metro Commercial, a Philadelphia-based company to which they now pay rent, is the center’s owner, or merely the manager. All the Budnicks know is that they were first assured their place was secure — until two months ago, that is, when Metro informed them that “they want to use our space for something else,” said Rose.

They’ve got to be out by the end of August, they said.

Bob Budnick, whose parents bought Laird’s in 1978 and who has never worked anywhere else, is now faced with the prospect of having to find a job at age 51.

“It’s kind of traumatizing,” he said.

“It hurts in a lot of different ways,” said Rose, noting that Bob’s sister, Debbie, also works in the store and all but raised her three daughters there.

Sensing something amiss and unable to get clear answers from Metro, the Budnicks started looking for new space about eight months ago, but haven’t been able to find the right location.

Meantime, they’re looking at squeezing some portion of their 3,600-square-foot business into the Candle Haven shop they also own just two doors away, which is half the size. And the lease is coming up on that space in March without any assurance it will be renewed, they said.

Anyway, reducing the variety of inventory might kill the golden goose, they said.

“What makes Laird’s so successful is what we have,” said Rose. “f we reduced it, it might not work anymore.”

If a customer asks for an item, “we’ll get it,” said Bob, noting that’s why a business that sells reams of paper would also carry tennis balls. “The magic is here.”

It’s not clear which other business, if any, might also get the squeeze. A call to Metro Commercial by redbankgreen was directed to the office of the president, but intercepted by a voicemail account of a nameless person. A message left there got no response.

Anchored by an Acme supermarket, the strip mall is also home to a post office, a bike shop, a liquor store and almost a dozen other businesses spread across three buildings.

Cliff Wittenberg, owner of Bike Haven two doors away from Laird’s, could not be reached for comment. But the owners of several shops said their leases aren’t up, and haven’t heard any hint of displacement.

“As far as I know, that post office is staying right there,” said Mike Ciano, the Red Bank postmaster whose responsibilities include the Fair Haven branch next door to Laird’s.

Sandi Villacoba, owner of the Pilates Project — and granddaughter of Ofelia Schwarz, who sold the shopping center to Metro Commercial — said her lease runs for another three and half years, “and I was told I could stay beyond that.”

The town is abuzz, meantime, with rumors of chain stores, chain restaurants and more. Judy Fuller, who runs the borough planning and zoning office, said no applications for changes at the center had been filed as of Monday.

Outside Laird’s, Carol Martin recalled that “every year” she used to bring her children to shop for school supplies before heading to Umberto’s across the street for dinner and then to the annual Fair Haven Firemen’s Fair. In recent years, she said, she’s kept the same custom with her grandchildren.

Katherine Brounley, a retired teacher who’s shopped at Laird’s for 55 years, told the Budnick’s she was “disgusted” at their treatment by the landlord, and wished them well.