After fire, Queens shop owner reminisces

Pedestrians walk along 37th Avenue between 84th Street and 85th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, passing a vacant lot where Tom's Shoe Repair burned down in February. Thomas Kourakos opened the shop in 1956 and stayed in the neighborhood as a shift in demographics reshaped the community. Photo by Chelsia Marcius

Thomas Kourakos remembers the morning his shoe shop caught fire and his career as a cobbler came to an abrupt end. On Feb. 13, he lost his finisher, stitcher, nibbler and patching machine — tools he used for more than 40 years to mend the soles of residents in Jackson Heights.

In those four decades, Kourakos, 83, watched from his doorstep — now a dusty pile of charred brick and melted mortar — as the neighborhood along 37th Avenue adapted, adjusted and reinvented itself.

He saw Fresco Tortillas, The Eastern World Travel Agency and Primos Discount move in across the street after Italian and Irish shopkeepers moved out. Kourakos knew the Luigi family, who ran a local pizza joint on the corner of 37th Avenue and 84th Street. Now it is a Mexican restaurant called Margarita’s.

But while the constant flux of different ethnicities might be a sore spot for some residents, Kourakos said it is the immigrants who have revived the community — returning Jackson Heights to the vibrant, competitive marketplace of the past.

“Business is better than it was 30 years ago,” Kourakos said, the wiry bristles of his mustache spreading into a lopsided smile. He is the son of a cobbler from Greece and a New York native. “Immigrants brought something to the neighborhood. They renovated and opened up beautiful stores. Thirty-seventh lost its luster 10 years ago. Now it’s coming back.”

Before, during and after Tom’s Shoe Repair, which Kourakos opened in 1956 and closed after the fire, the area has been a merchant melting pot. And despite the cultural clash, small businesses in the commercial heart of Jackson Heights, Queens, continue to coexist and even thrive.

Daniel Karatzas, author of “Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City,” said these demographic shifts take root in the early 20th century, when former real-estate giant Queensboro Corporation introduced cooperative housing, or “co-ops,” to the area.

The company offered rental tenants an attractive alternative to settling in the suburbs. But chic co-ops came with a price: a neighborhood now “physically distinct and more affluent than the surrounding area,” Karatzas said, a place for only the wealthy and well-to-do.

After the Great Depression and World War II, rapid housing development came to a halt and high-end merchants left. But more people continued to call Jackson Heights home. In the 1960s, Cubans and Koreans moved to the neighborhood, and 10 years later immigrants from South Asia followed.

Karatzas said these waves coincided with the recession of the 1970s, creating a host of problems that led to more trash, more crime and a more distinct ethnic divide.

Even into the 1980s, Kourakos said he kept his prices low to ease the financial burden on his family.

He sold his house in Long Island and moved to Jackson Heights with his wife Olga, who died in 2008. They lived in an apartment just a few blocks from his store to cut out the cost of a car.

And Kourakos still fixed a stiletto or kitten heel for what he considered next to nothing; throughout his career, his prices ranged from 75 cents to $7, depending on the decade. He said he considered customers family, and the last thing he’d do was shortchange a family member.

Carol Blum, 67, a Jackson Heights resident since 1979, visited the cobbler whenever she needed her children’s tennis shoes resoled or a high heel mended.

“It seemed like it was always there,” said Blum, whose apartment is adjacent to the shoe shop. “Things started to change a bit around Tom. But he was a fixture, and you really didn’t think about him; he was just part of it, and you took it for granted that he was here.”

Blum evacuated her building the day a boiler set the whole lot ablaze. She stood outside with a group people — some who held their animals close, others with their robes wrapped tightly around them. Blum said all stared at the fire from across the street and watched the smoke rise.

Kourakos said he first noticed the neighborhood change in the 1960s. Business executives, who lived in the Roosevelt Terrace co-op and often came in for a quick polish, stopped coming. The constant flow of customers, which he likened to that of a grocery store’s, began to ebb.

“The people making big money moved out, and they were the ones who could have their boots fixed,” he said. “Those that couldn’t afford it wore their shoes down. But I was there all those years and never had a problem with them. Even though they were immigrants, they were able to do business. I have nothing against the ones coming in now.”

Kourakos doesn’t keep in touch with immigrant shop keepers from his lot — people such as the Russian liquor seller and the Peruvian couple who sold party favors at their store, Lolita’s. Nor does he call customers like Blum. The flames consumed everything, including his cash register, where he kept all of their phone numbers.

As he talked of the fire, he gripped a cup of coffee with his thick, fleshy hands. Kourakos said he likes his coffee without too much milk; he often dumped out coffee customers brought him if it didn’t taste like coffee. He said he’s fussy like that, which is why he preferred to work alone.

Solid-green wooden panels now separate the lot of Tom’s Shoe Repair from the street. A demolition company’s advertisement hangs on the makeshift wall. Posters with the words “grand opening” invite passersby to visit new stores — the stores of those who relocated after the fire. Blum said the others “were too young to retire and (Kourakos) was too old to start over.”

As Jackson Heights continues to adapt, adjust and reinvent, Kourakos said he wishes he could feel like a part of it all again.

“You get pleasure out of life certain times, certain hours, certain seconds,” he said. “You know what the old song is? It’s ‘I Can Dream, Can’t I?’ “