Help! Consumerism-Mocking Artists Just Ate My Store!

It reads like an old joke now, muses Hercules Dimitratos, shaking his head.

Five artists walk into his convenience store. And walk out with, well, a convenience store.

On May 20, flanked by four co-conspirators, a Canadian blogger and artist, Kyle MacDonald, carried a brown briefcase full of cash through the creaky swinging door at Hercules Fancy Grocery on Morton Street in the West Village, opened it and said, grinning, “We want to buy everything in your store.”

In the viral video of the event, Mr. Dimitratos, 70, is seen bent over behind the counter, cupping his mouth in disbelief.

The process required six hours, two rolls of receipts and a U-Haul truck, but by sundown, the shelves were bare. The briefcase, holding $10,000, barely covered half the tab — a consumerist cocktail of gum, candy, soda and a wide selection of imported and domestic beers.

Mr. Dimitratos, a Greek immigrant who has operated the store since 1971, had gotten the offer he couldn’t refuse.

Three weeks later, he says, it’s killing him.

“I don’t have the merchandise I used to have, and meanwhile, I don’t want to lose my customers,” Mr. Dimitratos said Thursday evening, his store without shoppers at an hour when it should have been busy. “We sold out everything, and the business collapsed. It’s a really bad time.”

One month ago, Mr. Dimitratos was unsure if the shop would even survive the spring. For this reason, the artists, who have incorporated their spoils into an art exhibit entitled “The Art of Convenience” at Fusion Arts Museum on the Lower East Side, chose Hercules Fancy Grocery as their target.

“We were hoping the hit of cash would help him get through the month,” said Hal Kirkland, creative director of the project, when informed Thursday by a reporter of Mr. Dimitratos’ ensuing struggles. “This is completely the opposite of what we thought would happen.”

How does a five-figure sale lead a business to the brink? Teetering near the precipice beforehand has a lot to do with it.

The cash had to go directly toward paying off distributors, Mr. Dimitratos says — a necessary step, but one that may have come at the cost of reputation. He believes his status as a premier local carrier of imported beers, like Duvel and Chimay from Belgium or Peroni from Italy, has been compromised. Even regulars who rely on him for a stick of gum or a midday soda have been slow to return.

“The other day, I said, ‘You wanna get something over at Hercules?’ ” said Maurice Goode, 41, who works around the corner. “Someone said, ‘No. He’s out.’ ”

By now, most of the shelves are filled again. But Mr. Dimitratos is reluctant to place another order for his signature imported selections, one of his biggest profit centers. Last month’s clearance, he says, has placed him at the center of a vicious circle:

Mr. Dimitratos said he feared that if he fully restocks the most expensive beers, his business will never recover enough to pay for the inventory, but he knows his customer base is less likely to return without restocking the store in full.

“It was the most exciting thing when they came with the suitcase,” Mr. Dimitratos said. “But we had the best selection in the city, and now the people who come can’t find it anywhere.”

One remedy, the artists hoped, would be to make Mr. Dimitratos a partial financial partner in the exhibit. Their pieces — mostly the items themselves, encased in plastic, with an accompanying explanation — are available for purchase online. One Bic lighter (listed as “Celestial Flame”) sold for $50. A pack of Marlboro cigarettes, cast behind clear paper and plastic, is priced at $406, to represent an average pack-a-day smoker’s monthly expenditure, according to the site’s description.

But the artists’ need to make back their investment, too, and since the show opened on June 2, the group has sold only about $1,200 worth of art, mostly black-and-white prints of bodega items, Mr. Kirkland said. On Sunday, Mr. Dimitratos will appear at the museum, at 57 Stanton Street, to sign posters. All sales from the event will go directly toward Hercules Fancy Grocery.

“Anything we can do to help, we want to do it,” Mr. Kirkland said of Mr. Dimitratos’s financial straits. “But we’re still 20-or-so grand down.”

Mr. MacDonald, the project’s instigator, who famously bartered his way from a red paperclip to a two-story house in 2006, relied on multiple cash advances in the weeks leading up to the big haul, Mr. Kirkland said.

Despite its consequences, Mr. Dimitratos said he remained grateful for the episode.

“Something like this never happened before,” he said. Still, Mr. Dimitratos says he knows that it may take another unlikely community push to save the store, particularly if he risks further financial burdens by replenishing his imported offerings.

“I love this business,” he said. “But it’s not up to me.”

Mr. Dimitratos smiled as he spoke, watching his cat, Sneaky, climb into an empty box by the door. Mr. Dimitratos fancies himself as a sort of neighborhood godfather, he says.

And he hopes, if he can find the means to restock his priciest items, that the remaining regulars heed his plea.

Leave the gum. Take the Peroni.

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