By Ed Wendell
Over the past few weeks, the windows of GEM Discounts have been plastered with signs announcing their pending closure. The storefront sign has now been removed and the inside is pretty much stripped down to the bare walls and ceilings. The GEM era in Woodhaven has come to an end.
It was a decent store, with good prices and selections but it suffered from Babe Dahlgren Syndrome. Dahlgren was the first baseman who replaced Lou Gehrig when the legendary Yankee first baseman ended his consecutive game streak at 2,130 games.
He wasn’t a bad ballplayer, but he couldn’t come close to the man he replaced, and so it was for GEM 20 years ago this month as the legendary Lewis’ of Woodhaven closed its doors after 70 years in business on Jamaica Avenue.
The Lewis story began in the 1920s when Louis Lewis came to the United States and after selling items from a pushcart, he opened a store in Brooklyn. Soon, the family moved to Woodhaven and opened the store at 85th Street, next to a Sunbrite supermarket.
Over time, Lewis’ of Woodhaven expanded into Sunbrite’s space, and a second Lewis’ of Woodhaven was opened on Jamaica Avenue near 91st Street. There never was nor never will be quite another store like Lewis’ of Woodhaven. Most everyone reading this right now can think back to the times they went to Lewis’ looking for the impossible and they had it.
When talking to people about the store you’ll hear them say things like “If Lewis’ didn’t have it, it didn’t exist!” or “If Lewis’ didn’t have it, you didn’t need it!” and those were the unofficial mottos of the store. But on a Lewis’ of Woodhaven business card from back in the 60s was an even more perfect slogan: “We Sell Everything!”
And sell everything they did; you could walk in there any time of year and get any kind of item. And if they didn’t have it on their shelves, they’d have it in a back room somewhere or in their big warehouse right across from their 85th Street store.
A lot of work goes into selling everything. It takes a lot of knowledge of your customers and the Lewis family had that knowledge because they were us. They were residents of Woodhaven; they knew their customers and were friends with the people they serviced. They had been in many of our homes and knew the kinds of supplies we would need.
Here’s one of my Lewis’ of Woodhaven stories as an example. Back in the 1990s, we were in desperate need of a new Mortise Lock for our front door. But the one we had was old-fashioned and a replacement was not easy to get. Home Depot didn’t have any and local locksmiths were charging about 80 bucks for them, and they would take weeks to be delivered!
We went to Lewis’ (which is where we should have gone in the first place) and we asked Jeff Lewis if they had any and he asked me if I needed a right-handed or left-handed lock. I didn’t know so he gave me one of each and told me to bring back the other one. It cost three dollars and fifty cents.
But besides all the magic of the store itself, Lewis’ of Woodhaven was also special because of the staff and the relationship between the Lewis’ family and those that worked there. The people who worked there were your friends, they were your neighbors. They were a close family and that came across every time you walked through those doors.
I don’t know if there’s ever been a more perfect fit between a business and a community and for 70 years, they supported each other; a marriage made in heaven.
And when the Lewis family finally closed their doors for good in 2004, it was as if Woodhaven had lost a member of the family. Twenty years later and people still vividly remember the store, and everyone who worked there, as fondly as ever.
Simply put, Lewis’ of Woodhaven will never be surpassed or even matched. Those who used to shop there know what I’m talking about. And those who have never had the pleasure of shopping at Lewis’ of Woodhaven can only imagine it.
And no matter how good you imagine it to be, it was even better than that. After all, they sold everything.