‘We’re Suffering’: How Remote Work Is Killing Manhattan’s Storefronts

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A big shift toward working from home is endangering hundreds of locally owned Manhattan storefronts that have been hanging on for life to return to the desolate streets of Midtown and the Financial District.

The fate of these stores, and by extension the country’s two largest business hubs, will hinge in large part on how long landlords will keep offering the rent breaks that have kept many retailers afloat. Landlords themselves are under growing financial pressure as office vacancies soar and commuters and visitors stay away.

At risk is Manhattan’s unique retail culture — the jewelers, barber shops, event spaces and bars — that has long brought vibrancy and familiarity to the street-level canyons of its skyscraper-filled office districts.

“Right now, we’re suffering,” said Gili Vaturi, who operates Torino Jewelers on Lexington Avenue. She said her sales are still so weak that she is not covering all of her costs even with a much-reduced rent deal with her landlord, GFP Real Estate, which owns dozens of Manhattan properties and has a large minority stake in the landmark Flatiron Building.

Even as the national economy snaps back, the mostly empty office buildings in Manhattan mean many storefronts have not yet seen a rebound. The stores are a crucial contributor to New York’s economy and employment. While the city is home to some of the largest companies in the world, small businesses employed about 900,000 people and made up 98 percent of all businesses before the pandemic.

Employment at small service industry businesses in Manhattan neighborhoods with lots of office buildings was down 20 percent from prepandemic levels at the beginning of March, according to Gusto, which provides payroll and benefits services. In the wider New York metropolitan area, employment at such businesses is down much less, 6 percent.

“Right now, small business jobs are disappearing from cities — and may never