Specialty Flatbush-Junction Businesses Thrive Despite Gentrification

Storefront | Carolyn Adams

The bell perched above the door at Bulletproof Comics and Games rang continuously on a recent Saturday, as patrons rolled in to compete in the weekly gaming tournament held in the store. As the buzz amplified, they unpacked their card decks, laying them out onto a long table in a room adorned with comic book posters and skateboards.

Bulletproof Comics is a centrally-located hobby shop has been a mainstay on Nostrand Avenue for the past 26 years, serving generations of comic and gaming enthusiasts from the surrounding area and beyond. Many of the shops that existed when owner Hank Kwon started the business have since closed, but Bulletproof and a number of other specialty businesses have managed to stay afloat.

Hank Kwon opened Bulletproof Comics 25 years ago and remains a staple in the Flatbush-Junction area | Carolyn Adams

Over the last decade, many local businesses in Flatbush were shuttered as a result of rising costs associated with gentrification. With the City Council abuzz over the proposed Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would offer long-term lease protections to businesses of all sizes, attention has turned towards mom-and-pop shops across the city who have managed to persist despite rising costs. Nearly three-quarters of Brooklyn businesses are made up of fewer than five employees, according to the NYS Comptroller’s office, and small and medium-sized businesses dominate in Flatbush.

On the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Avenue H sits Brooklyn’s Best Locksmith and Hardware, a 25-year-old branch of a business started by Alan Butrico in 1975. Having grown into a multi-location business, locksmith Les Olivero recalled how a 1999 incident in which Butrico helped to rescue a local child from a safe launched his business. “Next thing you know, you’ve got 5 stores!”

Wall of keys at Brooklyn’s Best Locksmith and Hardware | Carolyn Adams

But Brooklyn’s Best has not been exempted from rent increases. Olivero said that they have had a friendly partnership with their landlord and the $3,000 monthly rent has risen less dramatically then other local businesses, some of which he says pay more than $5,000 a month.

Across the street is Bulletproof Comics and Games where owner Hank Kwon recently secured the floor above the current shop. Like Olivero, Kwon pointed to the rising cost of doing business in the area. “Personally, my rent doubled and then I have a second floor now, so it’s even higher.” Increases gradually occurred over several years – by 25 to 35 percent each year.

Kwon also pointed to gentrification as a driver of new business since the area has gotten busier. According to the Flatbush-Nostrand Junction Business Improvement District (BID), more than 26,800 vehicles and 21,900 riders passing through Nostrand Avenue each day, with tens of thousands more commuting through the surrounding Flatbush area.

One of many Brooklyn College entrances | Carolyn Adams

Bulletproof’s regulars are current and former Brooklyn College students, as well as area residents, but Kwon said that local BIDs have helped the shop to keep with the times. “About 15 years ago, they helped us remodel the store and they foot half the bill. That was very helpful.” He said that they have also provided marketing and store design help in the last few months when they lacked the budget to assist.

Though long-standing tenants like Brooklyn’s Best have partnered with local hospitals to provide and service their locks, Olivero said that they must continue to differentiate themselves from competitors like Ace Hardware a few blocks away. “Everyone around here is making keys now, but their keys are like aluminum and they break off. We’re 25% higher, but we get metal keys not aluminum.”

Similarly, Kwon said that Bulletproof’s expansion of the skateboard and longboard offerings has led them to become a premier shop in Brooklyn. Despite paying more for the second floor, he plans to utilize the new space to feature the work of local and black comic book artists, which reflects the shop’s attentiveness to Flatbush’s 58 percent Black population and an inclusivity that some patrons like Morgen B. from Brooklyn celebrated in their Yelp reviews. “When I walked in, there was a Magic [game] tournament happening and it was mostly people of color. I’m so tired of the stereotypical white guy comic book environments where I’m looked at as an anomaly. This might be one of my favorite comic book stores in all of NYC.”