This article is part of “Greek New York’s Finest,” our series dedicated to supporting Greek American-owned businesses in our home base of New York City that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This series of unique stories aims to bring these businesses more attention, publicity and support.
Asimenia Polychronakis has seen her fair share of world-changing crises.
Her father’s business was turned to dust and rubble during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 which left Lower Manhattan decimated and effectively devoid of its booming commercial activity for years after.
Minas, Asimenia’s late father and the namesake owner of Minas Shoe Repair, was at his store that morning when the first plane struck.
“I still have a tomato jar with dust from the Twin Towers,” Asimenia tells The Pappas Post while sipping coffee from a classic New York City anthora cup. “When I closed our current store due to COVID, I left the ashes behind because I thought it might protect the store.”
That morning, her father made it out of his shop, which was the only shoe repair business to operate in the original World Trade Center’s underground mall. But his business which dated back to 1977 would fall among the many casualties of 9/11.
“After we lost our trademark store, it took until 2003 to re-open our location on Wall Street,” Asimenia says. “When we first opened, the area was still dead and I asked my dad ‘Why did you try reopening here?’”
Her father’s response? Be patient.
“Sure enough, he was right,” she says. “Little by little, the area became busy again. We actually got so busy that we started opening on Saturdays to catch up on work, but then people started coming on Saturdays so we even added that day to our normal schedule.”
Photographs / Darden Livesay, The Pappas Post
Relative to the post-9/11 devastation, Lower Manhattan and particularly the Financial District have seen economic and social revival in recent years, including a residential influx to complement the neighborhood’s undeniably commercial identity.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and New York City’s strict lockdown stalled local activity seemingly overnight.
“As soon as Trump announced the travel ban from Europe, everything dropped to zero,” Asimenia says. “The whole neigbhorhood was empty.”
On March 18, she was forced to close both of her two stores, and one of them — Omega Shoe Repair on 27 William St — permanently as of July 1; as a result, she consolidated the whole family business into its current location on 63 Wall St on Hanover Street, which has been open since June 15.
But even during the lockdown, Asimenia says she remained fairly relaxed.
“I didn’t mind the COVID for a little bit,” she says. “There were a couple of days where I didn’t do anything. Sometimes you need it – you need to recharge your batteries.”
This lasted up until late May and early June, when civil unrest and riots ensued in New York after the death of George Floyd. Once Asimenia saw other small businesses being targeted, her concern immediately shifted to her own, the same one that her father started after he immigrated to the United States from Greece in 1969 — with only $138 in his pocket.
“I wasn’t sleeping,” she says. “I have security cameras and I was looking constantly.”
Asimenia’s father Minas passed away at age 76 in March 2018 after a series of health complications. Hailing from the Greek island of Crete, the late immigrant had become a local legend in Lower Manhattan with a reputation that followed him from one store location to another.
Minas was born in June 1941, during the brunt of the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II, in a bomb shelter in the village of Voroi outside Iraklion. As one of nine children, he knew a thing or two about living through crises and making sacrifices.
“I learned so much from my dad in the few years that I worked with him that I couldn’t learn in school,” Asimenia says. “My dad was always in the store. He used to say ‘This is my hobby. This is my life. This is my everything.’”
Asimenia has since taken ownership of the business, but as the coronavirus continues to linger, so does the struggle to remain afloat in an enterprise which depends heavily on Wall Street’s “hustle and bustle” office workers stopping by for shoe maintenance.
Minas Shoe Repair has seen an approximately 90% drop in business due to the decrease in foot traffic and has been forced to work with half-staff.
“For anyone who owns a small business in New York, it’s so difficult. We have to pay triple the amount because we’re in Manhattan,” Asimenia says. “We put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears and it makes you ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
As she works on a pair of shoes, Asimenia wears her store-branded apron which includes the inscription “9/11/01, 8:46 AM” in reference to the time when the first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. This detail serves as a constant reminder of the tragedy — and triumph — that Minas Shoe Repair already endured once.
Asimenia says today’s pandemic, however, has caused a different kind of devastation than the World Trade Center attacks.
“This is bigger than 9/11 because it’s not just a local thing – it’s a global thing,” she says. “It’s almost like we’re in a different reality. Sometimes I wonder ‘Did we die and we’re all in hell now?’”
Video footage by Darden Livesay; video editing by Maria Wilson.
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