By Jordan Davidson
UPPER MANHATTAN — A group of upper Manhattan residents is mobbing local stores — armed with a wad of cash and a mission to support local businesses.
Uptown Neighborhood Renewal, the community outreach arm of Uptown Community Church in Washington Heights, recently began organizing monthly "cash mobs" to support local businesses and artists.
Cash mobs involve a large group arriving at a venue at the same time to purchase as much as its members can reasonably afford in an effort to help out local businesses and people.
“We’re just a ragtag group making a difference,” said team member Randy Gallegos, 37.
The cash mob is the brainchild of the church’s pastor Reyn Cabinte, 38, and spearheaded by member Valerie Valentine Herron, 44, who is a lifelong Inwood resident.
Cabinte felt driven to prop up local businesses after Washington Heights fixture J.M.B. Shoe Repair on Pinehurst Avenue closed earlier this year.
“It just reached a tipping point,” he said. “We had to put a team together to do something.”
“We asked ourselves, ‘How do we give people a boost?’” Herron said.
The group responded by planning its first cash mob in support of local Inwood-based artist Will Alicea, best known as Will Teez, 40, who was recently diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
About 25 people packed into the back of the Indian Road Café at 218th Street and Indian Road on Sept. 16 to purchase T-shirts and buttons made by Alicea, who recently spent 53 days at Mt. Sinai Medical Center receiving treatment.
Many members stayed for brunch or coffee to support the café as well, according to Katie Avebe, 32, a cash mob participant.
Avebe couldn’t find a green three-quarter-length T-shirt promoting Washington Heights in her size, but purchased one on Alicea’s website instead.
“It’s affirming to feel we were making a difference for Will,” Avebe said.
Indian Road Café co-owner Jason Minter appreciated the unexpected business.
“We might sell three of Will’s shirts in a week,” said Minter. “We sold about 30 shirts and 22 buttons that day. It was great for us and great for Will.”
Alicea admired the cash mob’s therapeutic power.
“The cash mob phenomenon is great,” he said. “It shows love for people in the community, love for people who create. Love is the most powerful healer of all, not chemotherapy.”
The cash mob next plans to visit Dichter Pharmacy at 4975 Broadway on Oct. 13 at its new location just north of Isham Street — the store was forced to relocate after a three-alarm fire on Jan. 3 destroyed the building that housed the pharmacy for decades.
Sales of over-the-counter items are down 30 percent since Dichter Pharmacy relocated one block north, according to owner Manuel Ramirez, 44, who added that he has not yet received fire insurance payments for his destroyed inventory.
“These days, every store is in need,” he said. “I’m grateful they chose me.”
“We chose Manny because he is an Inwood guy through and through,” said Herron, adding that the group intends to purchase tissues, hand sanitizer and lozenges to make cold-season care packages for teachers at local public schools in addition to personal items.
“I want the shelves empty when we leave,” she said.
The team will also offer a dollar-to-dollar match on purchases of hand sanitizer from Dichter Pharmacy through the end of October, according to Cabinte.
“Every time someone buys a bottle of Purell, we’ll buy one too and donate it to a neighborhood school,” said Cabinte.
Cabinte expects approximately 40 people to participate, but is hoping to bring more than 80 people to the shop that only comfortably fits four or five people in the tiny storefront.
Later this year, the cash mob plans to visit Beans and Vines Coffee and Wine Bar at 4842 Broadway, near Academy Street, said Cabinte.
Owner Edson Familia, 38, said he struggles to pay off the debt he took on to open the café.
Cabinte said he is happy to help.
“Thinking local, thinking about people, thinking about helping the community and how we can be the catalyst to create a better place to live is what we’re about,” he said.