Save our Ray

One would think that one type of business that would be able to weather the current economic downturn would be a place selling fast food, coffee and soft-serve ice cream — like Ray’s Candy Store on Avenue A. People can always spare a couple of bucks for a hot dog and an egg cream or lime rickey, the thinking goes; we still have to eat, right?

Sadly, it’s not the case. Ray Alvarez, the tiny shop’s iconic owner, is having one of his worst seasons ever, to the point where he’s been unable to pay his rent recently, and is now being threatened with eviction by his landlord’s managing agent; last week, she warned she would padlock and chain his store shut if he didn’t pay his rent by Friday. Yet, Ray’s place remains open this week.

Loyal customers are stopping by to buy extra servings of hot dogs, Belgian fries, Belgian waffles and frozen yogurt, trying to eat their way to helping preserve Ray’s. And friends are working on setting up a PayPal account to help Ray raise funds.

Yet there’s no question he’s in a dire situation. And it takes selling an awful lot of chili-and-cheese frankfurters to meet a $4,000 monthly rent.

The point is, as anyone knows who has ever hung out in Ray’s for a while and chatted with the man, he is truly a unique person — an East Village institution if ever there was one. As one Ray fan once described it to us, his store is a sort of modern-day agora where all the local news is exchanged, where people make new friends and bump into old ones. Sure, it’s not antiseptic and perfect looking like Starbucks — but then could you ever buy “Obama socks” at Starbucks?

Some think that if Ray finally finds a magic product it will turn around his fortunes — his latest new offerings are Philly cheese steaks and cappuccino. The menu additions keep things interesting, but will they be enough to save his business?

There has been a lot of talk in the neighborhood in recent years about preserving local mom-and-pop businesses, and keeping out the big chain stores. Ray’s Candy Store is a perfect example of a local business that truly offers a unique, authentic experience, from its old-style soda fountain to Ray himself and the cast of quirky characters and locals who patronize his place.

Until his recent cash-flow problems, Ray has paid his rent faithfully for more than three decades — so one could say, he’s paid his dues. His place used to be one of the only businesses open on Avenue A at night, when taxis wouldn’t even dare come that far east. He slept in his store to protect it from burglars. He’s been slashed and slammed with everything from jagged fluorescent bulbs to metal sidewalk vault doors, and survived.

Those tough times are gone, but now Ray’s facing new challenges. Plus, the man can’t even get his Social Security and he’ll be 77 in a few weeks. Without his store, he’ll be completely broke and on the streets.

From the sound of it, the managing agent’s intimations that another tenant is ready to come in at a higher rent are probably hype. If she could just cut Ray some slack, she would give him a chance to start making money again when business picks back up in the warm weather.

Ray deserves a break — after all, he’s been breaking his back working every evening in his little hole in the wall for more than three decades. Simply put, he’s a vital part of the neighborhood fabric. It sounds like a cliché but it’s true: Without him, Avenue A and the East Village just wouldn’t be the same. People talk about communities losing their character. Well, Ray IS character, plain and simple. There’s got to be a way to save his store.