In a Storm, All the City Has to Buy His Goods

Posted By C. J. HUGHESSEPT. 26, 2008  || New York Times


Hanan F., manager of B-to-B Photo Supplies, said he shipped 30,000 umbrellas on Friday.
Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

For saving suede jackets and silk ties from ruin by a sudden rain, some credit should go to B-to-B Photo Supplies.

Despite its name, the company, which is based in Times Square, makes its living from wholesale umbrellas, including the ones with the comma-shaped handle that seem to multiply like mushrooms after storms like the one that walloped the city on Friday.

While their spindly frames may buckle in stiff winds and their tiny sizes protect only the thinnest girths, these impulse buys (for $3 or so) can still be a blessing for anybody emerging from a subway into a tempest.

But don’t let the exotic way many vendors pronounce their name (“UM-brell-a, UM-brell-a”) suggest that their provenance is such.

Behind a chipped black door on the fifth floor of an office building, B-to-B’s headquarters has the dimensions of a packed school bus. Boxes line rickety shelves and are stacked tall against walls. Used paper coffee cups litter desks, and the gray carpet is patched with duct tape.

And there are no windows, a feature that employees don’t seem to miss.

“We don’t need all the noise from the outside,” said Hanan F., 46, the manager, who declined to give his last name. Nearly bald, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a silver chain dangling over his white shirt, Hanan sat on a low chair under weak fluorescent tubes. “It’s beautiful and peaceful in here,” he said.

Friday morning, though, B-to-B was humming. Hanan, who estimated that he supplied about a fifth of New York’s umbrellas, said he had shipped 30,000 to drug stores, bodegas and electronics stores that are among the 1,000 stores and 200 individuals that make up his clientele.

That’s a typical number for a stormy day, he said. On a sunny day, he might ship just 600.

As a reporter visited on Friday, a fax arrived from a pharmacy in Newark, asking for 24 of the more expensive models, which are also hanging in a display in the office.

Hanan F., foreground, and Alirio Gonzalez, at B-to-B Photo Supplies, where umbrellas were in high demand on a rainy day.Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Some of them have sharp, sinister-looking tips, like the kind Felix Unger used to spear Oscar Madison’s cigar on the TV show “The Odd Couple.” The top-of-the-line model has a button that opens and closes a black-plaid shade ($5, wholesale). All the umbrellas come from the same factory in China, Hanan said. The “black auto regular” version — the one with the comma-shaped handle — wholesales for $1.20, according to the Web site, btobphotosupplies.com.

The phone rang, from a store on West 53rd Street: “Hi, Steve.” “You need umbrellas?” “How many boxes of umbrellas?” Since rain is forecast for the entire weekend, Steve ordered 400 umbrellas, plus 288 rain ponchos, which Hanan promised to take over himself in the afternoon.

Steve declined to buy the other products cramming the office, like aspirin, batteries, soaps and hairbrushes — not even the bungee cords. The company also sells video and still cameras and camera accessories.

The key to his business, Hanan said, is the personal touch. By using the Rollerblades that sit in the floor, he said, he can visit 10 clients in 2 hours.

“Ego doesn’t get you anywhere,” he said. “You’ve got to go out.”

He also uses them to commute from his home in Riverdale, the Bronx, where he lives with his wife and two children, to the Spuyten Duyvil Metro-North stop. They also help maintain his thin physique, said Hanan, who added that he served in the Israeli Navy and ran a windsurfing club before immigrating to the United States in 1987; he became a citizen in 1992.

Persuading passers-by to buy umbrellas isn’t always a cinch, though, said Oumar Diallo, who sells Hanan’s products from a blue metal cart at Seventh Avenue and West 40th Street.

Because the rain started before the Friday morning commute kicked in, “everybody brought one from home today,” he said. He had sold only 10 but was holding out hope for more rain in the afternoon rush.

If Hanan is proud of keeping New Yorkers dry, he doesn’t show it. In fact, he joked, maybe he is making the city more cluttered, since so many of his umbrellas end up in gutters, discarded.

“The city” he said, “might be cleaner without me.”