This article is part of “Greek New York’s Finest,” our series dedicated to supporting Greek American-owned businesses in our home base of New York City that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This series of unique stories aims to bring these businesses more attention, publicity and support.
You might not be that surprised when you walk into Mike’s Lumber & Hardware in the Upper West Side — it smells like fresh-cut wood, the shelves are stocked with tools and boot-wearing handymen regularly stop by to buy supplies before heading to a local job.
By every account it seems like a regular neighborhood hardware store. Until you speak with the owner, Manoli Papagiannakis.
“My father started this business with a 300 square foot store front, a table saw and piece of plywood,” Papagiannakis tells The Pappas Post “He didn’t have a lot of money when he came to the United States so he couldn’t buy a lot of material.”
His father Mike, 72, began as a custom kitchen cabinet builder in Greece, hailing from the small northern Aegean island of Samothraki. In 1966 he opened up shop in Manhattan’s Upper West Side where he continued his trade and also bought a warehouse in Passaic, New Jersey.
Manoli has since taken over operations and for more than two decades has continued expanding the family business which supplies wood, hardware, building material, moldings and doors for various projects.
But their inventory isn’t necessarily their secret to success; Mike’s Lumber can build custom closets, shelves, cabinets — nearly anything made of wood — and make it to the buyer’s exact specifications including measurements, design and color.
“What makes us unique is that we offer lumber cut to size,” Papagiannakis says. “We also do edging, veneering and any cut-outs you need — we can do that for you.”
By “veneering” he is referring to creating “veneers,” thin slices of wood typically used to build doors, tops and panels for cabinets, parquet floors and furniture parts.
The Hazlet, New Jersey native says most of his customers are contractors, handymen and “do it yourself-ers” who buy raw materials to build on their own.
And for those afraid to do a project completely from scratch — something which Papagiannakis advises against for residents of Manhattan apartments with limited workspace — his store measures, cuts and paints pieces which customers can assemble on their own.
Photographs / Darden Livesay, The Pappas Post
In an average week, Mike’s Lumber dishes out approximately 200 sheets of 4 x 8 foot plywood, an equivalent to more than 12,000 pounds of lumber, all of which Papagiannakis receives from the U.S. and Canada.
Since June 2020, the store has supplied material to more than 30 local restaurants building outdoor dining spaces to stay afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
And in the beginning of that month, as thousands of protestors took to the streets after the death of George Floyd, Papagiannakis says he was asked to board 45 Manhattan store fronts with plywood — a job which increased his business sales by 30% while emptying New York City’s supply chains.
“We ran out of wood. Our suppliers ran out of wood,” Papagiannakis says. “Then there was a shortage of wood for a couple of weeks.”
More than lumber and hardware
Separately but related to his Upper West Side store, Papagiannakis operates an “affiliate” company out of the same warehouse his father purchased in New Jersey in the 1960s.
MCC Construction & Millwork offers commercial and residential renovations for spaces such as kitchens, living rooms, lobbies and offices in the Greater New York City Area.
Papagiannakis has completed jobs in Hudson Valley, New York City, Long Island and New Jersey with both private clients and corporate clients including WeWork, the commercial real estate company providing shared office spaces.
One project in the Upper East Side saw the company install 1,000 identical kitchens in a residential building, which Papagiannakis says tends to be more lucrative work than commercial.
“I like construction the most,” he says. “No job is ever the same. You have to walk in with a vision of what you want it to be.”
Between June and September 2020 his company completed dozens of renovations in New York area homes where many residents remain working from home due to the pandemic.
Surviving the COVID-19 pandemic
From March to June, Papagiannakis was unable to operate his construction company due to government-imposed closures.
One of his Upper West Side customers had to spend three months without a kitchen in her apartment because on March 17, 2020, the day after his workers had ripped out her old kitchen to replace it, the building was locked down to outsiders. His team was legally not allowed not finish the installation until June 18.
But with PPP loan support and ongoing business from his hardware store, which remained open as an essential business, Papagiannakis has been able to hold on.
“[The loan] helped me give every person at least something to help them get by,” he says. “I couldn’t pay them for full-time work, but it was something.”
Early in the pandemic, as New York City hospitals were on the brink of full capacity, Mike’s Lumber donated all of its face masks in stock to healthcare workers at local hospitals.
Papagiannakis says sales have remained consistent despite the pandemic and, with social distancing protocols enforced, he has seen lines of customers form outside his door during peak hours.
“Before the big box stores came around, this store used to be a madhouse,” he says. “Seeing all those people waiting outside reminded me of the older days, even though now of course the lines are for a different reason.”
Getting away from work
“One thing I try to never miss is my summers in Greece,” Papagiannakis says. “Just getting away and not being in the daily routine of things is like therapy.”
The store owner says he visits his ancestral homeland for three weeks every summer and two weeks in the winter. His parents split half of the year between Greece and the U.S.
“Back in the day, during the earlier years, my dad would close down the store for a month in the summer and go back [to Greece],” Papagiannakis says. “But later on we got people around to manage it and keep it open.”
Papagiannakis says he hopes to launch his online version of Mike’s Lumber & Hardware early in the new year and in response to the increasing popularity of digital shopping.
“It’ll help a lot with sales and make shopping more convenient for our customers,” he says. “With COVID we’ve had a lot of people calling to get wood delivered around the boroughs.”
Mike’s Lumber & Hardware is open Monday-Friday from 8:00am-5:30pm and Saturday from 10:00am-5:00pm. The store is located on 254 W 88th St. Mike’s Lumber is on Facebook and Instagram (mikeslumber_hardware).
Video footage and editing by Darden Livesay.
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