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Ruhling: The Bargain-Basement Buyer

Digging through the big, brimming bins, Sam Kirby – “that’s Kirby like the pink Nintendo character,” he likes to say — unearths a treasure.

Sam’s the manager of Bingers Bargain Bins.

It’s the Funko Pops doll modeled after Pam Beesley, the level-headed receptionist at Dunder Mifflin on the iconic TV comedy series, The Office.

He thrusts it aloft like a trophy.

 Would you buy it for $10.99?

How about $8.49?

Or better yet, how about a pair of Pams for $2.99?

At any price, it’s just so cute that it’s hard to resist.

(Sam didn’t – he has a collection of The Office characters in his own office.)

At Bingers Bargain Bins, the price of Pam and all the other prizes keep going down until they hit rock bottom and are replaced by next week’s shipment of stuff.

Bingers Bargain Bins, which is in an old warehouse that Sam painted bright blue, is a no-frills fun place to shop for big-name brands – you never know what you’re going to find, and that’s the whole point.

Sam, who was a diehard Bingers shopper before he was put on the payroll, recently was seduced by the Angry Mama Microwave Cleaner, a product he didn’t know he couldn’t live without but now wonders how he ever did.

You fill the plastic female figure (its “dress” comes in several colors) with water and vinegar, and pop it in the microwave for 7 minutes. Steam comes out of her head (remember, she’s a mad mama) and softens all the dirt and stains so you can easily clean the appliance.

Bingers Bargain Bins opened at the end of 2020, about six months after Sam arrived in Astoria.

Sam, who was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and grew up in Daphne, Alabama, didn’t expect to buy the Angry Mama.

Nor did he anticipate that he would end up living in the Big Apple.

After attending Louisiana State University for a year, he moved back home and got a job as a customer service representative at a car dealership.

“It was my first real job,” he says, adding that he didn’t know anything about cars. “But I learned a lot – about cars and about people.”

Shopping is like digging for treasure.

Five years later, when his sister vacated her apartment to study abroad for a year, he took her place in Auburn, Alabama, rooming with her best friend, Jackie Goff, who became his girlfriend.

“I went there without a job,” he says, “and I worked in the restocking department of a vending machine company. It was neat because the warehouse was like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory – I got to snack on Snickers bars and Coca-Cola all the time.”

Sam might still be there had Jackie, a kindergarten teacher, not gotten a job offer in the South Bronx, where she had done a year-long internship.

“We kicked the idea around for about a week,” he says. “I told her moving to New York sounded like it could be fun.”

For the first year, Sam, sitting on his couch with a laptop, devoted himself to finishing his community college degree online.

“I kept delaying things because I really didn’t know what I was interested in majoring in,” he says. “I chose science because it was the most general thing offered.”

He fell in love with Bingers Bargain Bins, which probably is the only discount store in the world that has a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, and when there was a job opening in August 2021, he applied.

“I was shopping there one to two times a week, and the manager recognized me in the interview,” he says.

Sam, who is 28, became the manager in February, and a couple of months later, he proposed to Jackie at the Central Park Reservoir.

Living in the city has been a great adventure for Sam, a tall man with a sliver of a Southern accent that surfaces when he’s smiling, which is pretty much all the time.

 “We love it here,” he says. “And I love Bingers Bargain Bins – it’s a fascinating concept.”

Bingers Bargain Bins buys pallets of merchandise returned to major retailers, including Amazon.com.

Some of the items are repackaged by Bingers into so-called “mystery boxes” that sell for $99.99.

“They are a collection of everything in the bins – we go by what we think is fun, not by what we have in excess,” he says. “The retail value always exceeds the price paid.”

Sam is still a frequent shopper at Bingers Bargain Bins.

He looks around his office – his computer mouse, computer stand and paper shredder – yup, they are all from BBB.

“I’ve become the perfect gift giver,” he says, grinning. “I’m always finding little doodads.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Ruhling: The Self-Styles Shopkeeper

Flavio Bessah is setting a style scene on the sidewalk.

He carries a petite light-blue side chair out the front door of his shop, Flash 16 Botik, and places it on the colorful Turkish rug atop the concrete.

He follows that with another chair, this one upholstered in a light floral pattern.

Flash 16 Botik is at 22-04 33rd St.

Flavio, tall and dark and shy, adds a small wooden cabinet and a half dozen empty frames and artworks to the smart scenario.

By the street planter, which is filled with purple and yellow petunias and serves as an extra seat, he places a glass-topped side table, crowning it with a lamp that has a blue and white china base.

After making a few adjustments – perhaps the pillows on the second chair should be re-arranged and the painting should be moved to the other side – he steps back to survey his work.

“I have to be and like to be involved in every detail,” he says.

Yes, it is a perfect city sitting room.

Flavio’s been working for hours, cleaning, and arranging and rearranging, and he didn’t realize that it’s time to open the boutique, which sells fashion for people and fashion for the house.

This isn’t Flavio’s first shop.

The shop carries furniture and home accessories.

That one, Flash 16, was on Newtown Road, and he closed it last year because of the pandemic after a three-year run.

This boutique, which he is calling Flash 16 Botik , is on 33rd Street off Ditmars Boulevard between the old Key Food parking lot and Chip City.

It has only been open two months; there’s much work yet to do.

The black awning still carries the name of the previous tenant, a juice bar, and Flavio’s still trying to figure out how to fit all his stuff into this, a significantly smaller space.

The designer-brand stock varies – you really need to visit the boutique every week to keep from missing out on the Coach, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana and Escada pieces that you and your wardrobe simply can’t live without.

Right by the door, there’s a pair of lipstick-red Calvin Klein stilettoes.

On the back wall, there’s a vintage framed poster of the Beatles promoting their first film, “A Hard Day’s Night.”

In the window, there is a pair of glass and metal table lamps. And over in the corner, by the vintage glassware, there’s an entire section filled with designer handbags.

The clothes racks are bulging: There are frilly dresses, tailored coats, just-plain jeans and shiny micro-mini skirts.

The designer merchandise – some new, some old, some donated, some consigned, all of it in perfect condition – is carefully curated by Flavio, who made his career as a fashion stylist.

Flavio has a degree in journalism.

Flavio, who is from Goiânia, a city in central Brazil that’s 125 miles from Brasilia, has always been interested in fashion, but it wasn’t until he moved to New York City some two decades ago that he began the collection that ultimately led to his opening the shop.

A journalist by training – he has a degree in the subject from the Universidade Estácio de Sá in Rio de Janeiro – Flavio figured he would write about fashion in the city.

He quickly discovered, however, that the money he was making writing his magazine articles didn’t cover his rent or his fashion purchases.

Working as a fashion stylist, however, did. So did selling styles and style.

Like Flavio’s first shop, Flash 16 Botik – Flash refers to the camera-carrying paparazzi, 16 is the date of Flavio’s birthday and Botik is a play on the word boutique, which is what the restaurant across Ditmars Boulevard calls itself – is proving to be successful straightaway.

Flavio has a good feeling about this store: He thinks and hopes that it will be so popular that he’ll be able to open an entire chain that features his self-styled fashion aesthetic.

He finds the 12-hour days fun and fulfilling, whether he’s unpacking dresses or dressing up the front windows.

“I’m so busy with this right now that I don’t have time to do styling any more,” he says, grinning. “I’m totally dedicated to Flash 16 Botik.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

VBGC Queens raises over $100K at annual gala

The Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens hosted their annual gala on Wednesday, May 18 and raised over $100,000 for their Astoria-based programming.

The event honored Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, who received the “George Skouras Award,” Peter Vallone Sr., recipient of the “Judge Charles Vallone Award,” Dr. Cameron Hernandez of Mount Sinai Queens, recipient of the “Albert ‘Cubby’ R. Broccoli Award,” and Paula Kirby of Plaxall, recipient of the “Ann Buehler Award.”

Treasure Hodge, an executive recruitment liaison for VBGC Queens, was honored with the “Staff of the Year” award.

Walter Sanchez, BQE Media Publisher and president of the VBGC Queens Board, was inducted into the Hall of Fame, along with his son, John Sanchez, president of the VBGC Queens Young Professionals Board.

The gala’s silent auction featured items from the New York Mets, Museum of the Moving Image, Milkflower, The Row, Chef Moise, Noguchi Museum, Ample Hills Creamery, Alewife Brewing, Untapped NY & Behind the Scenes NY, JetBlue, NFL, Trattoria L’incontro, Ace Hotel, Disney, Cheesecake Factory and Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom.

Marco Santini was in attendance illustrating his iconic “One Love” painting, asking guests what they value most and incorporating their words into art. At the end of the night, the painting was auctioned off to the highest bidder

The evening was sponsored by Mega Contracting, the Vallone Family, Plaxall, JetBlue, Innovation Queens, Robotti Insurance and Wildflower Studios.

The Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens hosted their annual gala on Wednesday, May 18 and raised over $100,000 for their Astoria-based programming
Pictured (l-r) Costa Constantinides, Walter Sanchez, Peter Vallone Sr., Tena Vallone, Paul Vallone, QBP Donovan Richards, and Paula Kirby.

 

From ‘Sex and the City’ to ‘The Kids We Love’

How a local author breaks traditional storytelling with her new kid’s book

Eleni Fuiaxis, a professional model, actress, elementary school teacher, and mother of two from Astoria, can now add published Children’s author to her already expansive resume. Best known for her role as Debbie in the hit HBO series Sex and the City, she hopes to reignite reading and storytelling in schools with a brand new book series designed to help parents and teachers engage and connect with kids.

The first book in the series, “Picky Patrick,” was something she started writing eight years ago as a labor of love. Fuiaxis said that she always enjoyed reading to her kids at night, but would always return home from work exhausted.

“I was so tired by the end of the night,” Fuiaxis said, “I made up these stories for them.”

Her children loved the stories so much that she began to write them down. In fact, her son Zen was so inspired by one of the stories that he asked her if he could make copies of the book to sell to his friends. It was at that moment she became determined to publish them.

“Picky Patrick” hits major book sellers on July 12

But as soon as she found a publisher, everything suddenly came undone. “My marriage fell apart,” she said. “I had no idea what I was doing with myself and my life.”

Fuiaxis said this was when she embarked on a journey of self-discovery. It was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that she decided to become certified to teach.

“The modeling and acting industry were completely annihilated,” she said. “And so many teachers were getting sick, retiring, and walking off the job.”

Feeling compelled to help serve in any way that she can, she quickly found herself thrown into the classroom. “It was intense,” she said. “But I have no regrets. It’s one of the most challenging and rewarding things I have ever done.”

Since the children connected organically with the characters in her book, she decided to add 14 different prompts at the end, to serve as a springboard for deep and meaningful conversations.

“Picky Patrick,” tells the story of an 8-year-old boy who seemingly has it all, but spends all of his time nitpicking and choosing to focus on the negative things.

One day, after reading the book to her class, she said that a student approached her with a dilemma–they accidentally colored outside of the lines. That was when a fellow classmate stood up and said, “remember Picky Patrick… it doesn’t have to be perfect.”

“Kids are literally teaching each other how to self-soothe and problem solve,” she said. “It really connected with them… now, coming out of COVID, they need time to connect more than ever.”

Fuiaxis also said that she has finished three more manuscripts for the collection–“Smelly Nelly,” “Scared Steven,” and “Negative Nathan”–which she plans to release at a future date. Her first book in “The Kids We Love” series, “Picky Patrick,” will be released by Mascot Kids and available at major booksellers on July 12.

Ruhling: The Woman who takes History to Heart

As a historian, Heather Nicole Lonks Minty is used to telling stories.

Other people’s.

So that’s where we start.

We’re in England, where in 1909 two suffragettes, identified as a Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, find a novel way to draw attention to the cause.

They mail themselves to the prime minister at No. 10 Downing St. so they can advocate, in person, for the right to vote. (The postal charge is 3 pence, and the “human letters” are unceremoniously returned when the recipient refuses to sign for them.)

Heather starts a new job next month.

“A delivery boy had to actually walk them there,” Heather says, smiling at their audacity and cleverness. “During the mailbox bombing and arson campaign of 1912 through 1914, one woman used to hide explosive devices in her wheelchair.”

In the United States, the women were not so militant. In 1917, they merely chained themselves to the fence around the White House to get President Woodrow Wilson’s attention.

Heather, a tall woman with glamorous gold-rimmed spectacles, tells these and other stories about everyday people to make history come alive.

Whether you’re talking about women picketing to get the right to vote or young men protesting the draft, the stories resonate because “it could be you or someone in your family,” she says.

That’s why she finds walking tours so thrilling: You get to stand in a space where history took place.

As far as Heather’s own history, it starts in Flushing, where she was born 32 years ago and where she spent most of her childhood and young adulthood.

At LIU Post, she earned a bachelor’s degree in TV and radio (she loves watching historical documentaries, and her thesis was a video walking tour of the Civil War draft riots) then proceeded to earn a master’s in public history at Royal Holloway, University of London.

“Public history is all about getting history to the public,” she says. “These days, there are many engaging ways to tell stories that are not just exhibitions in museums.”

After returning to New York, she landed a job at the New-York Historical Society, a move that would change her own history in ways she never imagined.

It was there that she met Chris Minty, a “cute” Scotsman fascinated with U.S. history who had a fellowship with the museum.

“We actually were in London at the same time, both frequenting the same research libraries when I was in college, and I did take some day trips to Scotland, but our paths never crossed,” she says.

They were introduced at a staff meeting, but Heather wasn’t impressed enough to pay much attention to him.

It was Tinder that kindled their romance.

“I swiped right, but I still didn’t recognize him,” she says, adding that the people on fellowships like Chris had separate work areas so she never saw him. “He sent me a message saying he thought we worked in the same building.”

Heather thought it was a pickup line until she verified the information.

On Nov. 4, 2014 – Heather, ever the historian, remembers the exact date – they met for coffee.

“Our love of history connected us,” she says. “We spent five hours talking – it’s probably the longest coffee date known to man.”

Their relationship deepened their appreciation not only for each other but also for their respective areas of study.

“He opened my eyes to parts of American history I had never seen before,” Heather says.

Although they had been dating only a couple of weeks, Chris traveled all the way from Morningside Heights to Flushing to have Thanksgiving dinner with Heather and her parents.

“The holiday, of course, is not celebrated in Scotland, so he really didn’t know what he was getting into,” she says. “My mother sent him home with so much food – and he discovered corn bread.”

Heather makes history come alive.

They married and moved themselves and their voluminous collection of history books to Boston, where Chris had been offered a job.

Heather took a position with the Boston Athenaeum and later worked for the Boston Arts Academy Foundation then Respond, whose mission is to end domestic violence.

At the end of 2020, during the pandemic, they returned to New York to be closer to Heather’s family.

Heather was working for Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit that focuses on New York City’s and state’s finances and services, when their daughter, Isla, was born.

(For the record, the only reason Isla, who is 6 months old, has not visited a museum yet is because of covid restrictions.)

Next month, after taking a short break in her career, Heather’s starting a new job as the development director of an institute in New Jersey whose mission is gender equality, which syncs with her keen interest in women’s rights.

“Having a daughter makes this even more exciting because instead of fighting only for myself now, I’m fighting for her and her generation,” she says. “That makes it easier for me to leave her and go back to work.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Ruhling: The Woman in Retro

From the color-coordinated racks of clothing, Lisa Ferrari-Sullivan pulls out a 1940s sundress and holds it up to the light streaming through the front windows of her new shop, Pimbeche Vintage.

She points out its flamboyant green-rose floral print, its contrasting yellow piping, its perky front bow and its metal zipper.

Although the dress is at least 80 years old, it looks as gorgeous as it did the day it was made.

For Lisa, who is wearing a kaleidoscopically colorful 1980s Guy Laroche cotton top and 1980s Gitano jeans, retro fashion is much more than mere window dressing.

It is, she says, a really good way to recycle and repurpose, which she has been doing her entire life.

Lisa, model tall with long black hair that she tames by tying it back in a ponytail, was born and raised in Wallingford, Connecticut, which she calls a “lovely little suburban town that I always wanted to get out of when I was young but that I now am nostalgic about.”

She gets her own sense of style from her mother, who she says is “extremely fashionable.”

Lisa adds that her mother was in her early 20s – nearly three decades younger than Lisa’s father, a World War II combat veteran and first-generation Italian-American she met while he was working for the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.

“She was always well dressed but on a shoestring budget,” Lisa says. “She was Latinx, she was exotic, and she was the talk of the town. I was in awe of her. She didn’t look like the other Connecticut moms.”

As a youngster, Lisa borrowed her mother’s clothes to play dress up and came to love vintage clothing, which she subsequently began collecting.

At first, she frequented thrift shops then switched to estate sales and online auctions.

“I love 1970s clothes,” says Lisa, who was born at the beginning of that fashion-forward era. “They are carefree and bohemian – it was anything goes. People used clothing to express themselves.”

When it was time for college, Lisa didn’t major in fashion – she has a degree in business management from Southern Connecticut State University – but she knew she wanted to make her career in New York City.

“I had a friend who had a job here,” she says, explaining what prompted her to move. “My first job, in 1998, was as a receptionist at Thierry Mugler.”

Lisa climbed the fashion industry ladder, eventually becoming a national sales director for a succession of major fashion houses.

Around the turn of the century, she got married, moved to the Astoria area and had two daughters, who are now 14 and 11 and sometimes help her out at Pimbeche Vintage.

“After my first daughter was born, the showroom I was working at closed down,” she says. “I wanted to stay home, but I didn’t want to stop working —  I had been working since I was 16. My side hustle was selling vintage clothes.”

She started selling online and about eight years ago began setting up at the Brooklyn Flea in Dumbo and Chelsea.

“I originally did it with my mother, but she had to drop out to take care of my father,” Lisa says. “I used the money I made through the years from the flea markets to fund Pimbeche Vintage.”

Pimbeche, which, by the way, is French for “snobby girl,” carries women’s fashions, including jewelry, shoes and handbags, from the 1940s to the early 2000s.

“I love selling pretty things,” Lisa says as she puts the sundress back on the rack. “But I also want to help the environment. I have a strong passion for sustainability.”

Pimbeche Vintage is still a work in progress.

Lisa, who wears vintage when she’s in the shop, is working on a website and soon will add live online sales.

As she’s talking about her plans, a customer walks in.

After searching through the racks, she selects a prettily patterned cotton dress and heads back to the dressing room to try it on.

Lisa smiles.

“The Astoria community has been amazing,” she says. “People come in to browse, to buy and to talk. I’m grateful that they want to support small businesses like mine.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

New e-bikes added to Citi Bike’s fleet debut in Astoria

Jason Subratie said he could barely sleep the night before meeting the new upgraded e-bike that he would be using as his primary mode of transportation around the city.

The young Manhattan-based entrepreneur says he discovered Citi Bike’s fleet of e-bikes last summer and has been riding ever since.

From delivering food orders to earn money, to visiting family members in Queens and Brooklyn, Subratie has even come up with a slogan for the bike-share company owned by Lyft.

“Why walk when you could use a Citi Bike?” Subratie said with a laugh. “I literally don’t believe in walking anymore, unless it’s out of the network. And I stay pretty much in the network.”

Subratie biked to Astoria last week to help welcome the new and improved line of e-bikes being added to Citi Bike’s fleet, and was one of the first New Yorkers to take the new model out for a ride.

Standing in the shadows of Astoria Houses, the debut of the new e-bikes came with celebration from community leaders and Citi Bike officials, who also noted the reduced fare program for residents of New York City Housing Authority.

Bishop Mitchell Taylor, CEO and founder of Astoria-based nonprofit Urban Upbound, led the collective remarks with some reflection on the place he’s called home for his entire life.

“The transportation burden on this community was quite great,” Taylor said. “So, to have us here today offering a transportation alternative is really historic.”

Laura Fox, the general manager of Citi Bike, outlined some of the new features of the revamped e-bikes, which include a longer-lasting battery life up to 60 miles and a reflective-paint that is highly-visible at night.

“When we thought about the design of the new bike, we tried to simplify all the features, give it double the battery length, make a larger motor so you can get up those hills a little bit faster and easier, and really create a great, simple experience,” Fox said.

The nation’s largest bike-share network was purchased by Lyft in 2018, and now has over 1,500 docking stations and 25,000 bikes across New York City and Jersey City.

The partnership of Citi Bike and Healthfirst, New York’s largest non-profit health insurer, will offer $5 monthly memberships for NYCHA residents and SNAP recipients, with e-bike fares starting at $.05 cents a minute under the reduced fare program.

As someone who was born and raised in multiple NYCHA developments, Migel Santino, vice president of Healthfirst, says he understands the challenges that many NYCHA residents face.

“Those challenges stem from unequal access to resources, which makes life more difficult,” Santino said. “I will say that it is always important to have a program like this but it is particularly important as we are still working our way through the pandemic.”

As the new e-bikes hit the streets for their inaugural rides, Subratie was still elated with joy to be one of the first New Yorkers to ride the newest addition to Citi Bike’s lineup.

“I ride e-bikes all day, everyday,” he said. “I appreciate the upgrade.”

Ruhling: The Woman Who Took a Deep Breath

The Woman Who Took a Deep Breath

The lights are low, the music is soft, and the sweet scent of flickering candles is oh so soothing.

Erika Ferrentino, who has luminous blue eyes and the poise of a ballet dancer, is eager to welcome everyone to the first downward-facing dogs of the day at YUG Wellness.

She’s still pretty new at being a business owner – she started the studio in October 2021.

It wasn’t as simple and as straightforward as it sounds.

Erika had to make a lot of changes and choices to create YUG Wellness, whose Sanskrit name refers to the process of uniting mind, body and consciousness.

Erika, who at one time was passionate about CrossFit, didn’t discover the healing power of yoga until recently.

Born and raised in Rockaway Beach, she aspired to be a writer.

But after graduating from SUNY Albany with a degree in English, she became a residential real estate broker specializing in rentals.

To supplement her commission-only income, she waited on tables.

“I didn’t have any money,” she says. “I was living in my parents’ basement in Rockaway Beach and doing the long commute to Manhattan. When my mom asked me to pay rent, I started saving as much as I could so I could move out.”

She ended up on the Upper East Side.

For a while, she was the manager of a small Wall Street firm.

“I was so broke that I ate cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she says. “And I walked to work to save the subway fare – it was five to six miles each way.”

Then she got a big break: an entry-level job at Morgan Stanley, where several of her cousins were employed.

She worked her way up, becoming an executive in wealth management.

That career took her to Miami, where she lived for a year, then back to New York City, which is where she was when the pandemic locked the world in a vise grip.

By that time, she was the mother of two daughters, Francesca and Gigi, who are, respectively, 8 and 5.

“I was working from home part of the time and commuting to Manhattan a couple of days a week,” she says. “And I was home-schooling the girls. The stress got to be too much.”

Indeed, her anxiety became so severe that she began having panic attacks.

“I would get on the train and have to get off because I couldn’t breathe,” she says, adding that she also lost her vision twice. “It was so bad that my doctor put me on medication.”

Although her symptoms declined, Erika, who rarely takes a Tylenol, didn’t want to be dependent on prescription drugs.

At her doctor’s suggestion, she reluctantly tried yoga, which she thought would be boring.

The poses were easy; it was calming her mind that proved difficult.

“Yoga changed my life,” she says. “The first thing I learned was that I wasn’t breathing – I was holding my breath. Yoga reconnected me to my breath.”

The results were so dramatic and positive that Erika wanted to learn as much as she could about yoga, a quest that led her to binge-read books and ultimately take a 200-hour teacher training course.

Last year, Erika, who lives in Astoria, quit her job of 17 years at Morgan Stanley to establish YUG Wellness, which offers not only yoga classes in Italian and Spanish as well as English but also a variety of holistic wellness experiences that range from facials and body contouring to meditation and IV vitamin therapy.

“For the second half of my life, I want to do something that helps people walk out feeling better than when they came in,” she says. “And I want to create a community space where people can connect in person.”

Erika, who was used to making overseas phone calls at 4:30 in the morning when she was with Morgan Stanley, is at YUG Wellness six days a week.

“I don’t teach the classes, but I take at least one a day,” she says, adding that she does fill in sometimes as a substitute.

She usually arrives at the studio after she drops her daughters off at school.

When they come home, she takes a break to be with them.

On weekends, they sometimes visit the studio and help her at the front desk.

Like the students who are arriving for class, Erika’s taking things one downward-facing dog at a time.

“If I can help one person like me change their life, that’s important to me,” she says. “I want to be present and let go of the past and move forward and feel grateful.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Ruhling: The Deep-Discount Guy

Chris Sciacco, who is wearing a grey sweater and a big smile, throws open the doors to Kaiya’s Pallets.

This is week No. 5 of the wholesale/discount store’s existence, and he’s really pumped.

Come on in! We have deals you can’t pass up!

Water is 10 cents a bottle.

Gatorade is 50 cents a bottle.

Diapers are on sale for $10 a pack.

And brand-name cereals are $3 to $5 for a two-pack.

Come on in! Fill your cart without emptying your wallet!

“I’d say that 90 percent of the people who come in here do not leave empty-handed,” says Chris, as he greets another customer. “I decided to open the store because there’s nothing cheap in Astoria.”

Kaiya’s Pallets, which he describes as “a mom-and-pop BJs-Costco,” certainly fits the bill.

Its ever-changing inventory of brand-name products, which range from toothpaste and olive oil to clothing and lounge chairs and appliances, is the very definition of deep-dollar discounts.

Despite his enthusiastic sales pitches, business is not Chris’ first love, something you might guess if you’ve seen the hilarious videos he creates and stars in that promote the store.

A native of Whitestone, Chris moved with his family to Maryland right before he started high school then came to New York City when he enrolled in The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.

He majored in film.

“I always had a camera,” he says. “I was an athlete and goofball, and I was always making stupid stuff. I fell in love with filmmaking after I took a course in high school.”

His parents, he says, were not amused by his affinity for the cinematic art.

“I begged them to let me do it,” he says.

To appease them and ease their fears for his future, the summer before he started school, he worked at his uncle’s discount store, Thomas Ventures, in Corona.

He bartended his way through college, and when he graduated, he moved to Astoria in 2007 shortly before his daughter – in case you haven’t figured it out, she’s the Kaiya in Kaiya’s Pallets – was  born.

“I started working for my uncle full time,” he says. “He told me he wanted me to follow my dreams, so he allowed me to take time off to continue making films.”

Chris took him at his word: So far he has made 300 shorts, and his first feature-length film, The Improviser, has just been released.

In 2018, when his uncle died, Chris began running the store and successfully shepherded it through the pandemic by adding a wholesale component.

And that might have been the end of the story had his aunt not decided to retire and sell the store, which, he adds, may or may not happen any time soon.

“She encouraged me to start Kaiya’s Pallets, which is a mini version of Thomas Ventures,” he says. “Right now, I’m working seven days a week and going back and forth between the stores.”

It is, he admits, a lot.

Kaiya’s Pallets, which covers only 5,100 square feet, is staffed by Chris and four of his friends.

Kaiya, who is 13 and is the model for the store’s logo, works a weekend shift in the clothing section.

“At first she thought it was cute that I named the store after her,” says Chris, a proud single father since her birth. “But now all of her friends are making fun of her.”

And she’s making it fun for herself by promoting the store on social media.

In case you’re wondering, Chris is starting work on yet another film; it will, of course, be shot in Astoria.

And he’s planning on making a film about his grandfather, a Korean War POW who came out of the fighting with four Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and three Bronze Stars pinned to his uniform.

Sometime in the future, he hopes to open more Kaiya’s Pallets.

“My dream is to have another location on the other side of Astoria,” he says.

On The Record: Kayleen Seidl, Actress

During summer 2014, Kayleen Seidl relocated to Astoria, Queens from the Midwest to pursue her musical theater career.

It was during a summer stock in Woodstock, New York when she decided to move to the big city on a whim.

She attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and earned degrees in vocal performance and Spanish. A few months into her move, she booked her first New York show at White Plains Performing Arts Center.

“I really came to give the musical theater industry a shot, and I basically said I’d give myself five years and see how it goes,” Seidl said.

“At about the five-year mark, I was in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Yiddish, which was enjoying a year-long run off-Broadway on 32nd St,” she continued. “I decided it was going well, so I’m still here.”

As a small town Catholic girl, becoming heavily involved with the National Yiddish Theatre was a pleasant surprise for Seidl, which allowed her to expand her knowledge of different cultures.

“It’s been really great. I’ve learned a lot about the culture and language; I didn’t know that Yiddish even existed growing up,” Seidl said.

“Now I’ll catch myself saying Yiddish words sometimes because they’re just so ingrained in me from this whole experience,” she added. “It’s been a really neat journey.”

Her favorite part about living in Queens is the diversity it has to offer, and of course, the food!

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