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Struggling Tri-County vendors: 'We're still here'

Tri-County in Levittown.

Tri-County in Levittown. (Credit: Nina Ruggiero)

It's the only place around where you can have your nails done, shop for diamond jewelry, get a snack and visit a psychic under the same roof.

So why are some vendors at the Tri-County Bazaar in Levittown struggling?

"August is usually the quiet time, but this year it didn't seem to pick back up again," says Anthony Sesack, who has had his airbrush booth, East Coast Brush Works, at the location for eight years. 

As Sesack spoke in late December, a few parents stopped by asking for custom creations such as soccer and ballet sweatshirts with their kids' names on them and first-birthday tees. Sesack is one of very few airbrush artists on Long Island, and many customers know him by name. 

It's these return customers that booths like Sesack's depend on, but since Apogee Retail took over in 2011, new customers have come in for the Unique Thrift Store and many of the old have gone elsewhere.

"I get from some customers that they didn't know we were still here," Sesack says. "They thought it was just a thrift store now. If people don't know we exist, we're eventually going to have to close up. One by one I see people starting to leave because they're not getting the business they used to get."

Sesack acknowledges that Apogee has made improvements to the space, however. 

"The place used to be a menagerie of booths," he says. "It was a maze. Now everything's all in rows; you can stand in the front of the store and see the back. They cleaned it up; there are new lighting fixtures. They did a lot of good here."

In fact an Apogee source said more improvements are in the works, including new vendors with electronics and stuffed animal building stations for kids, as well as nationally recognized food options.

They added that Unique Thrift Store, which makes up a small portion of the main floor and most of the previously unoccupied basement, has been reaching its goals and significantly increasing in sales each year.

Some customers who had been shopping at Tri-County for years confirmed that the thrift store has steered them away, while new, younger shoppers seemed enthralled by the idea.

"We used to come here a lot before they switched over to Unique," said Lori Arnett of Bay Shore. "There was always something you could find. Even if you weren't looking for it, something would strike your fancy. But now there's not so much variety. Old timers that we came for had to move on."

Jenna Gallante, of Levittown, shopped at Tri-County with a friend for the first time in December and headed straight for the thrift section.

"It's cool because no one can have the same stuff as you," she said. "We're finding name brand stuff for really cheap. We just found a shirt I bought at Urban Outfitters for $40 and the same exact one is here for, like, $5."

Many others still come for the jewelry exchange upstairs, which is the largest on Long Island. November 2012 was the first time in 20 years that every vendor space was filled. Still, downstairs among the leather jackets, boots, artwork, pajamas and perfumes, Sesack's fellow vendors agreed they are feeling the heat. 

"Some people don't show up anymore because they feel embarassed to shop here," said one vendor who wished to remain anonymous. "But the ones who know us know we have good products and good prices."

The owner of a new booth, Ricochet Tactical, who goes by "Shaq," sells airsoft products and firearm accessories. He said he chose to take his company to the location because he remembered it for its diverse environment and reasonable prices growing up.

"I'm lucky because there's only five of us on Long Island that sell this product, so once people know I'm here I have a steady flow," he said, "but the traffic that I remember as a kid isn't here. I think big corporations like Walmart to our left and Target to our right have hurt this building."

Shaq also touched on the building's confused identity.

"I think we're no longer a flea market," he said. "We're a group of small businesses that sell unique products. I don't think people understand that."

Many of the vendors still at Tri-County have been around for years, and other services include knife sharpening, shoe repairs, eyebrow threading and framing. In addition to the fine and costume jewelry customers will find scarves, T-shirts, shoes, makeup, cell phones and sports memorabilia.

"Everybody's looking for the lowest bargains," Sesack says."They're always looking for the big chain stores because they offer the least price, but you don't get the personalized service and one-on-one attention that you get from a mom and pop shop."

But most of all, Sesack aims to send out one simple message that he believes could save his business.

"I just want people to know we're still here," he said.

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