Save Ray’s benefit cooks up $3K for Avenue A fries king


By Lincoln Anderson

With a series of Save Ray’s benefit concerts, a Facebook site, a new line of snazzy “Ray wear,” cash donations and, as always, a steady chowing down of Ray’s golden Belgian fries, East Villagers are doing whatever it takes to help beloved small business owner Ray Alvarez keep open his Ray’s Candy Store on Avenue A.

With the usual winter drop-off in his business, coupled with the devastating economic recession, Ray has been particularly hard hit, struggling to pay his $3,500 monthly rent since December. Alvarez — who has operated the store for 36 years — was threatened with eviction at least twice in recent months, but each time, financial support from the community has helped him raise the needed money for his rent.

Monday night saw yet another Save Ray’s benefit, at Theater for the New City on First Ave. between Ninth and 10th Sts., with $3,000 raised for the East Village egg cream artisan.

For once, Ray, 77, was actually able to make it to one of his own benefits. Since he works the 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. overnight shift at his hole-in-the-wall store near Seventh St., he’s usually sleeping in the early evening. But he was at the theater — and beaming with joy — at Monday’s benefit, which started at 7:30 p.m. and went till 10:30 p.m.

Reverend Billy, the performance-artist activist preacher, and his choir sang “Push Back,” their anti-gentrification song. Billy then came over to Ray in the audience and gave him a blessing. Crying and smiling, an overwhelmed Ray offered his deep thanks to everyone, followed by his trademark “I love you!”

Billy “preached” about all the East Village businesses and institutions that have been closed down amid the neighborhood’s gentrification.

“CHARAS!” he called out, referring to CHARAS/El Bohio, the former community and cultural center on E. Ninth St., then invited audience members to join in.

“Save the Robots!” someone shouted. “Gas Station!” someone else yelled. … “The 13th St. squats!” … “Eighth St. squat!”… “CUANDO!”… “Glass House!”… “The band shell!”

In a real treat for the audience, local Ray fan Dolores “LaLa” Brooks, lead singer of the Crystals, sang the ’60s’s girl group’s classic hit “And Then He Kissed Me.”

In her remarks, Councilmember Rosie Mendez recalled how Ray had faced eviction once before.

“About 10 years ago, the community and The Villager, which was following the story, were supporting this issue and saved Ray’s — and we can do it again,” Mendez declared.

As the councilmember spoke, Ray was sitting outside in the hallway, where Antony Zito was painting a “found object portrait” of him on a wooden crate.

Other performers included the East River String Band, Blind Boy Paxton and Marilyn Kirby.

The benefit was organized by two members of Reverend Billy’s Life After Shopping Choir, Barbara Lee and Francisco Valera. Lee has lived in the East Village since the 1980s, and Valera lives in the same building as Ray’s store.

Valera said, “The event was packed, the performers were all super-talented and happy to be able to help Ray. You could feel the love we all share for Ray, and how much we all care for him and want him to stay. Ray must stay on Avenue A! He’s a superstar!”

“He’s always been generous, loving and sweet — and I’ve always admired his egg creams,” Lee said. “I heard he has a major Con Ed bill, so he’ll pay that first, and whatever is left will go his rent. And if he needs more — we’ll have another benefit.”

In an interview on Saturday night, Ray — whose real name is Turkish, Asghar Ghahraman — told The Villager he had to pay several thousand dollars in income tax earlier in the day, so his finances were low again. Luckily, though, the benefit was coming up to replenish them. He said he was bowled over by how the community has supported him, noting that one East Village blogger gave him $100, while an older gentleman asked him how he was doing on his rent, then pulled $200 out of his pocket and handed it to him.

But Ray said he doesn’t want the community to have to rally to save him like this again. He’s got to come up with something to help him make money during the winter, he said. Some ideas are to get a $1,700, state-of-the-art juicer, ratchet up his smoothie production or maybe even make crepes. He gets a lot of his food ideas off his new, in-store computer with WiFi, he said.

In addition, local blogger Matt Rosen and Ray’s upstairs neighbor Conrad Oakey have teamed up to create an online store of “Save Ray’s” clothes and items, from T-shirts, sweatshirts and thongs to mugs and dog shirts, at www.cafepress.com/SaveRays . Ray will get 100 percent of the proceeds. They sold 40 of the T-shirts at Monday night’s benefit for $10 each.

“Ray’s not a gouger,” Rosen said. “That’s why we’re keeping the prices down. At the same time, because Ray doesn’t gouge, that’s why we had to have this benefit.”

In addition, Rosen said, since the Save Ray’s Facebook group now has more than 2,000 members, they might be able to put together a video with testimonials and win a grant from the Pepsi Refresh Project, Pepsi’s effort to do good works in the community. Winners are based on the number of votes for each video.

“Maybe it’s not crazy to go for $50,000,” Rosen said, noting that could pay Ray’s rent for a year.