Photo by Jefferson Siegel
Virote Sirirat Sivawong, a.k.a. “Tang,” started working at T.S. Hardware and Locksmith 44 years ago at age 19. The place is almost empty now and he expects to close within the week.
BY JEFF VASISHTA | What do Martin Sheen, Rod Stewart, Anderson Cooper and Lindsay Lohan all have in common? They have all at one time or another been clients of Virote Sirirat Sivawong, or “Tang” as he’s commonly known to his clients in Greenwich Village. And who is Tang? An Asian herbalist, yoga instructor or spiritual healer? Not quite.
Tang has been the proprietor of T.S. Hardware, at 52 E. Eighth St., between University Place and Greene St., for the last 35 years. It’s an old-fashioned, mom-and-pop store, 500 hundred square feet, the quintessential hole-in-the wall, selling everything from sheetrock knives to wood stain and padlocks.
Tang, 63, actually started working in the store three days after he arrived from Bangkok, Thailand, in February 1971. When the previous owner, Murray Mantel, decided to sell in 1978, Tang had saved up enough money to take over the business. While it’s been a good long run, he’s closing the business this month.
“I can’t blame the landlord, Mark Greensburg,” Tang said in his heavily accented English.
He’s a friendly man, with olive skin and receding gray hair.
“It’s a combination of the rent going up and the economy going down,” he noted.
Tang currently pays $8,500 per month. “Homeowners are not doing repairs like they used to,” he said, “and I cannot survive simply on key-cutting, which is mainly what I do now.”
Tang, who commutes from his home in Jamaica Estates, Queens, and works long hours, doesn’t plan to retire when he gives up his lease.
“If I can get a smaller, cheaper place on a side street I will open up another hardware store and work for a few more years,” he said.
Has the thought occurred to him to try anything else?
“This is all I know,” he said smiling.
The neighborhood, which now includes so many banks, fast-food restaurants and boutique clothing shops, is unrecognizable since Tang started working there in the ’70s and paid $1,250 a month in rent. His former boss paid just $700 a month.
At its peak the store was grossing $6,000 a week and helped pay, along with scholarships, for Tang’s three sons, now aged 35, 33 and 30, to graduate from Ivy League universities. His eldest became an engineer after attending Columbia, and the other two, doctors who graduated from Columbia and Yale.
“My wife, Soontharee, has to take the credit for their success,” he stressed. “She would come into the store in the morning and was there at 3 o’clock every day when they came home from school. That type of stability was so important in allowing them to feel relaxed and able to focus on their schoolwork.”
What does Tang remember about his many celebrity clients?
“Rod Stewart and Martin Sheen would come in here from time to time and buy padlocks,” he recalled. “Anderson Cooper from CNN was interesting. He came in here a year ago and bought a green ladder. I asked him how he was going to get it home. He told me he had a bike. He went outside with the ladder, put it on his bike and rode down the street. Then Lindsay Lohan came in here last week. She needed a key cut.”
Tang is philosophical about his 40 years at T.S. Hardware.
“The last 10 years have been tough,” he said. “Sometimes I’d get eviction notices but I always managed to find the rent somehow. Now my children are no longer in school and settled, I don’t need to worry so much. I like working and am not ready to stop. Maybe I’ll work part-time somewhere.”