The owner of a beloved Italian-American gift shop that has been in business for more than 100 years is desperately looking to stay afloat at a time when the pandemic has delivered a blow both to his shop and to his family.
Ernie Rossi recently returned to E. Rossi and Co, located on Grand St in the heart of Little Italy, for the first time in more than three months.
The shop is stacked wall to wall with imports from Italy from tea towels and bowls, to coffee makers and souvenirs. The shop also sells Italian-American novelty items. It has been part of Rossi’s family since 1910, when it was founded by his grandfather.
Prior to the pandemic, Rossi says most of his customers were tourists. With tourism down significantly, Rossi is scrambling to keep the business that was first passed down to his father from permanently closing its doors. He has also set up a GoFundMe page in the hopes of covering expenses that include months of back rent and vendor bills.
For Rossi, who is 70, the pandemic has dealt a significant blow to both his business and to his family, which are intertwined.
Two months ago, while Rossi was at a rehab center, the shop’s two remaining workers, his wife, Margaret, and their best friend who lived with them, temporarily took a break from the store when they both contracted COVID-19.
Within weeks, the love of Rossi’s life and his friend, who he considered a son, were both dead.
“I never expected this would have hit the way it did with my wife and best friend Freddy,” Rossi said. “It was towards the end of this virus. They caught it in mid-March, so I thought it was almost practically gone away, but that wasn’t the case.”
One of the first things Rossi noticed when he returned to his store was the empty chair where Margaret, his wife of 50 years, used to sit.
“I can still visualize her sitting there,” he said. “The other night, I was in my kitchen and I walked from the kitchen to the bedroom and I was ready to say, 'What do you need, honey?' But when I looked, she wasn’t there. She was gone.”
Rossi admits he and his wife, who had no children, almost never took a vacation because the shop was their life. He would be devastated to lose it.
"I've been doing this since I’m a kid. This is all I know," Rossi said. "She would want me to stay here, since there’s so many people who come in, 'Ernie, how are you?' She would know I would not feel lonely.”"