This is the second installment of a blog series called The Out There Side. This piece focuses on a local proprietor on the Upper West Side.
In mid-March, under orders from New York State to shut down his business, Fasil Yilma closed up shop at Gold Leaf Stationers on Amsterdam Avenue. Later that month, he filed a petition to reopen as an “essential” business.
“I explained that the students, instead of going to school, are taught in the house, and many parents are working from home,” Fasil says. “So the supplies that they used to get at school or in the office, now they need to buy on their own. They will need the cartridges, the printing paper, all of that. And people who are stranded in the house, they need some kind of activity like puzzles.”
After some pestering, he got permission to reopen: “They said, so as long as you are providing what you’re describing, you can do it as a delivery or curbside pickup.” He now has a table in the doorway for customers, complete with a bell to summon him from inside the store, where he’s essentially a one-man show.
Fasil owns and runs the shop and, in normal times, employs helpers — but now he’s sailing solo. “For awhile it’s just going to be me,” he says, “ordering, putting the stock in, following up on paying bills and all that. It’s a lot, yeah, but I can do it.” He grins, under his mask. “It’s just how it is.”
I’ve known Fasil for years. He frequents the grocery store where I work part-time, and I’m a regular at Gold Leaf Stationers. It’s sort of a cross between a miniature Staples and an old-timey variety store, with greeting cards, art supplies, various what-nots, and stellar service. Fasil and I are both former marathoners (he’s about half an hour faster than I) and we’ve exchanged battle stories about New York and Philly and Boston, about drafting and chafing, about that special thrill of getting revenge on running foes by passing them in the last mile …
Fasil grew up in Ethiopia and came to New York City at age 19, first living with his sister and uncle. He earned a bachelor’s degree in math from the State University of New York at Oneonta, and planned to pursue a career in statistics. “But I had a problem,” he says. “They were changing the laws, and because of going back and forth, it took me almost 13 years to straighten out my paperwork. It was just a drain on the brain — because you’ve come so far.”
He eventually got his green card and started working at Gold Leaf in the late ’90s when it was located on Broadway; worked his way up to partner after it moved to Amsterdam; and bought out his partner a few years ago. “I used to think owning a business — my God, that’s what my goal was,” he says. “Own the business and work for yourself. Now how I see it, I’m not working for myself — I am working for someone else. Working for the landlord, working to pay everyone from Con Edison to Horizon to the bank to the insurance companies and so forth. I am the one who is working for them!” He laughs. “You know, I’m not complaining; it’s fine. As long as you get to see a little bit back from what you put out.”
Unlike many neighborhood business owners, Fasil did not board up his windows during the recent unrest surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests. “I never did worry that something would happen here,” he says, pointing out that the Upper West Side remains a relatively quiet neighborhood. He also agrees that a stationary store is not the most lucrative target for looting: “What are they going to do, come in and take some kind of things to write?”
While Fasil was too busy to join any area protests last week, he says he supports the cause but laments the violence and looting. “In any disaster, somebody loses and somebody gains,” he says. “There are always going to be people who are taking advantage of the chaos. It’s not for the cause — it’s just because they are desperate enough to get what they want or to steal because it is available.
“The hardest part of it is,” he adds, “people don’t separate the two. For their advantage also, they have to put them together to make it their cause. So they say, ‘All of the protesters are bad,’ or ‘Everybody’s out there to loot,’ or ‘Everybody has to go home.’”
Fasil sees narrow-mindedness on both sides. “The people out there — to burn and destroy — they have no conscience, so in a way it defeats the purpose. And the other ones are taking advantage of the circumstances to gain politically in the process. So it bothers me in both ways.”
He points out that COVID-19 has brought many moods to a fever pitch. “For certain people, it gives them a license in a way to push things they already had inside. The anxiety or resentment or fear, it comes out because of all this that’s going on in the world.”
He notes that unrest stems from simmering emotions. “I see the anger — why people break into a place — because you never know what has happened to that person who broke into the place. He might have been rejected to get a job, or to get into a school, and that creates anger by itself. But it is better to channel it into something positive.”
Fasil freely discusses the racism he’s faced in his own life. “In Ethiopia, we had never been colonized and we don’t have that many foreigners in the country,” he recalls, “so we are all as one — you don’t differentiate between people as much.” While New York is a melting pot, it’s harbored many tensions. “When I moved here, I was opening my eyes. And I have experienced, you know, people being cold: ‘You don’t belong here, get the hell out of here. You are a terrorist, go back to where you come from,’ the n-word, everything — I have experienced it.
“I used to get so pissed off and mad about it,” he adds. “But you have to use that emotion for something good.”
For Fasil, that is work itself. “I know in this country as a black person, to be considered good, you have to be excellent. Yeah, so you have to work twice as much to be considered just okay.”
His response? “I work hard and I know my goals,” he says. “Every single thing from cleaning to helping customers to doing anything in this place. I don’t question, ‘How do I do it, how I can provide?’ I’m standing there to do that work. I’m doing what I have to, to get where I have to go.”
All images by the author (jackcrager.com).