Seen it All: Long-time Shopkeeper in Bed-Stuy Honored for ‘Loyalty’

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Eric Bullen was honored as an “economic development trailblazer” during the seventh annual Bed-Stuy Alive (Photo Credit: Michael Copley.)

There was a time when Eric Bullen couldn’t keep thieves out of his clothing store in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Delivery trucks were raided when their drivers walked into his shop, and a particularly daring thief once broke in through his store’s skylight window.

“They were coming from the front and the back,” said Bullen. “I was a nervous wreck.”

Al’s Men’s Shop, the business Bullen has owned in Bed-Stuy since 1977, stubbornly survived through decades blighted by drugs and poverty. Long-time residents say the explosion of crack and heroin during the 1980s and 90s was especially vicious.

“I stuck here all during that time,” said Bullen. “The neighborhood was like a ghost town. People would come in the neighborhood and get mugged.”

The skylight caper was the last straw for Bullen. Rather than flee the neighborhood, however, he moved his business to the other side of Fulton Street in 1989 and reopened.

From there he’s watched the decline and resurgence of a neighborhood.

On Oct. 8, Bullen, 68, was honored as an “economic development trailblazer” during the seventh annual Bed-Stuy Alive, a weeklong festival celebrating the neighborhood’s culture and history. The award, one of nine given out this year in categories ranging from arts to business, is a tribute to Tohma Y. Faulkner, a former member of Community Board 3 who died in 2008.

“The award means a lot to me,” Bullen said in his shop in early October. “It’s people in the community recognizing longevity in an individual that actually saw changes and stuck in the community in bad days and good. That, to me, was worth all the trouble I’ve had.”

Bullen immigrated to the United States from Grenada in 1968 after several years in the West Indian Regiment in Jamaica and later in the Trinidad and Tobago Defense Force.

With professional experience limited to military service and a short stint as a teenager at Everybody’s Department Store in Grenada, a placement agency sent Bullen to Al’s Men’s Shop, which at the time was owned by Jerome Friedman. Bullen bought the store in 1977 when Friedman moved to another part of the city.

“The neighborhood was changing,” said Bullen. “There was no business and a lot of drugs” – there was “a drug infestation,” he clarified.

Other long-time business owners describe a similar scene. Vinnie Moreno, who owns a pizzeria on Nostrand Avenue, said that for years the area in front of his restaurant was a violent drug market. “It’s crazy,” Moreno said pointing out his shop’s front window, “it was like Baghdad.”

Those years were hard on businesses. “There were days when I couldn’t pay my rent,” said Bullen. Al’s Men’s Shop shutdown at one point because he couldn’t pay his sales tax, and he frequently had to rely on Friedman, who by then was operating another clothing store, for merchandise on consignment.

Despite the struggle, Bullen stayed in the neighborhood – “To go elsewhere, I would have had to have money. Where would I have gone?” he asked – and serviced a “loyal” clientele. “I have a good relationship with people,” he explained. “It’s how I deal with [them].”

But his resoluteness also grew out of a sense he had that the shop created a kind of permanence that Bed-Stuy lacked. He talks of men released from prison who would walk into his shop to say hello because his was the only business left that they remembered from before they went away.

“As long as they can see someone they recognize, it brings back memories,” he said.

At the award ceremony last week, State Assemblywoman Annette M. Robinson, who handed out the awards, called Bullen a “reflection of the deeply diverse roots of Bed-Stuy,” and praised Bullen and the other award recipients for their “endurance and perseverance” through “trials and tribulations.”

“I love what I do with a passion,” Bullen said a few days before the ceremony. “It’s all I know… I think business is my gift. It’s so much easier for me because I love what I do. I feel so comfortable here.”

But the energy and time it took to maintain the business left little for his family. “It can go both ways,” he said. “I couldn’t be there with them and here at the same time.”

Bullen’s daughter, Erica, who accepted her father’s award because he wasn’t able to attend the ceremony — he was working — told the crowd that growing up, she and her siblings resented their father’s absence from family events. They “childishly” didn’t appreciate his efforts to provide for his family, she said, or his larger significance to the community.

Looking back, she said, “He taught us lessons in selflessness.”

Through his shop’s front doors, Bullen has seen Bed-Stuy swing “from one extreme to the other,” he said. For one thing, “more white people are back” in the neighborhood. There was a time not so long ago, he said, when “it was unheard of for white people to come here.”

During the past decade, Bedford-Stuyvesant absorbed upwards of 10,000 new residents, census data show. White people are reportedly moving in while the neighborhood’s black population has experienced a “dramatic decline,” according to Joseph Salvo of New York City’s Planning Department.

Salvo told NewYork1 that that kind of transformation – what he has called a “tremendous change” for the historically black neighborhood – is “the story of New York.”

Bullen and other business owners say there’s also much less crime in the neighborhood. According to police data, the number of robberies reported in Bed-Stuy is down 75 percent since 1993, and the number of murders during the same period has fallen as much as 75 percent in some areas. 

“I was privileged to see this,” Bullen said. “People just see [things] one way, but I’ve seen it from bad to good.”

Today Bullen’s shop deals almost exclusively in hats – “headwear” as he calls it. Other clothing is available, but it’s hidden in cabinets behind hat racks. As a practical matter, focusing on hats made the business less overwhelming, he said.

But it’s also a matter of style.

“You’re not completely dressed until you have a hat,” he said. “I’m from that old school. I like to see the response, the facial expression of comfort and happiness. That makes my day.”

And now, “if the economy could just get a little bit better, a lot of stores [in Bed-Stuy] could do better,” said Bullen. “It would be good for all of us.”

Al’s Men’s Shop will once again relocate in the coming months to another spot on Fulton Street in Bed-Stuy. With the building Bullen rents in up for sale, he decided to move rather than hang around to see what a new owner might do – increase the rent, which is happening to commercial property throughout the neighborhood, or use the space for another other use. 

“I don’t know who would come in and what would happen,” said Bullen. “I made up my mind to go. I can feel a little bit better.”

“I still feel there are better days to come.”

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