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THE SIGN THAT LAUNCHED 1,000 BUSINESS NEWS STORIES
By LINCOLN ANDERSON
The Villager, Volume 77 / Number 38, Feb. 20 - 26, New York 2008
The Villager was the source of last week’s hottest international business news story, though one would never have known it from the many media outlets that failed to give the newspaper a mention.
It all started at the end of last year when local antiques dealer Billy Leroy and Lower East Side documentarian Clayton Patterson were schmoozing, lamenting the dollar’s sinking value against the euro. Leroy, owner of Billy’s Antiques & Props on E. Houston St., had just returned from the Continent, where he’d found the dollar so deflated he wasn’t able to buy any antiques. The two hatched the idea of putting up a sign at Leroy’s store telling customers “Euros Only.” On the sign’s back was its previous Lower East Side message: “Steal here die here.” Patterson took a photo of Leroy with the sign, the intent of which was only partly in jest.
“We sat around and talked about it,” said Patterson. “You used to be able to go around the world and everybody would take the American dollar. Now, it’s the reverse. We said, ‘Should we do it? Yeah — and we’ll take a picture and give it to The Villager.’ If I wasn’t there, it wouldn’t have happened,” Patterson said.
“It did start off as tongue in cheek, kind of a joke,” Leroy said. “I had been Paris and I couldn’t buy anything over there. You’ve never seen French antique dealers so miserable, because there were no American antique dealers over there.”
A week later, photographer Nick Brooks snapped a shot of Bob Chu, an owner of East Village Wines, holding a handful of euros, which he really does accept. In January, The Villager ran the Leroy and Chu photos side by side with the headline “With the dollar down, euromania sweeps Downtown.”
A month passed before the major media picked up on the story — but pick up on it they did.
After The New York Times’ Travel section cited The Villager, Reuters, the global news wire service, tracked down Leroy — and the media feeding frenzy was on. Soon the story — that small East Village stores are accepting euros — was being beamed to the far corners of the Earth.
The story peaked the week before last.
“Thursday morning, I had CNN, MSNBC and Fox all on the sidewalk at once,” Leroy said, recalling when three news vans toting giant, live-feed, satellite dishes pulled up in front of his place.
“It was like Britney Spears rehab here,” Leroy said, “with the big cables on the sidewalk and everything.”
A reporter for Al Jazeera’s English-language station interviewed him. Beforehand, Leroy — who prides himself on his “abrasive nature” — put up some background decoration he felt would appropriately push some buttons.
“I put all this Christian imagery up with an American flag — though I didn’t put up any nudes,” Leroy said. The interview wasn’t overly political, though he noted, “I called Bush a retard. I really believe it’s because of the goddamned war. If we had those billions. …”
Three Japanese TV stations interviewed Leroy, along with one each from Italy, Spain, Germany and India. On Friday afternoon, Leroy was waiting for a Brazilian TV crew to show up, but they were pretty late. Had the story run its course?
Not yet, apparently. Sunday’s Page Six Magazine in The New York Post featured dueling talking points on the topic. “Last week, the business press went crazy over news that some East Village stores are allowing customers to pay in euros,” the article’s introduction stated, then asking two financial experts to answer the question: “Do foreign dollars spell hope or disaster for our economy?”
Leroy had saved a dozen issues of The Villager with the original article, and handed these out to the international journos.
“You got the credit,” Leroy told The Villager last week. “Reuters came to me after seeing your article.”
The upshot is that Leroy really is accepting euros now. Heck, he said he’ll take British pounds and Canadian dollars, too.
Meanwhile, Chu, a partner in East Village Wines, on First Ave. between St. Mark’s Pl. and Ninth St., was more low-key about the media mania.
“He’s just doing it for the publicity,” Chu said of Leroy.
“Business-wise, it hasn’t really increased our business,” Chu said. “Let me change that,” he noted on second thought. “We’re getting a lot of people wanting to come in and buy euros — like a bank. People going to Europe, they’re looking to get euros. It’s been publicized that we deal in euros.”
But taking euros is more about service than profit for Chu. When he deposits the euros in the bank, he’s charged for the conversion.
“We make 2 cents on every euro,” Chu said. “It doesn’t add up. Two cents on 1,000 euros — it comes to very little.”
In fact, he noted, this wasn’t the first time his store has been profiled for accepting the European currency. The New York Observer wrote about Chu’s euro-friendliness in 2004, and Chu noted he’s been taking euros ever since they were introduced nine years ago.
Photographer Brooks similarly took the hoopla in stride. Speaking by cell phone after having just covered a fire on E. 11th St. on Tuesday, he said, “Glad to add to the world’s reservoir of knowledge. That’s about all I can say. It’s cool. Here I am doing what I’m doing — it’s nice to actually make a dent in the world.”
But Leroy was unabashedly reveling in his “15 minutes of fame,” as he put it. He has a cameo in “The Guitar,” a new movie written by Lower East Sider Amos Poe and directed by Amy Redford, Robert Redford’s daughter. Leroy plays a crusty antiques dealer in a scene shot in his own tent shop; Amy Redford liked the shop as a setting, and Leroy convinced her to give him a shot at the role.
“My IMDB [Internet Movie Database Web site] rating probably skyrocketed,” he noted last week. “Johnny Depp is like number five.”
So what’s next for the concept team of Patterson and Leroy? Whatever it may be, they doubt they’ll ever be able to top their huge euros story.
Patterson hit it big in terms of news saturation once before. Back in 1988, his videotape of the Tompkins Square Park riots landed him TV spots on CNN, Oprah and Geraldo. That story went global, too — but he feels the euros story was even farther reaching.
“That was probably the biggest story to ever come out of The Villager,” Patterson reflected last week of the euros sign. “It went around the world.”
For a clip of one of the TV news segments interviewing Leroy on the sign,