Little Ukraine Grows Smaller

In July 1910, a teenager named Myron Surmach left his village in Ukraine, boarded the ship Atlanta with a third-class ticket and headed across the ocean to an improbably big city called New York. For 21 days, Mr. Surmach sucked on a lemon to stave off seasickness until he reached Ellis Island. There, he told an interviewer decades later, he was shocked to find an American guard welcoming him to the United States in perfect Ukrainian.

Mr. Surmach began his new life in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., but within a few years, he made it back to New York. Eager to preserve his native culture, he opened a small shop on Avenue A in Manhattan where he sold records, books, clothes and other trinkets from the old country to other Ukrainian immigrants. He named the store Surma — after an old woodwindlike instrument — and for 98 years it has operated at various addresses in the East Village, settling in 1943 at 11 East Seventh Street.

The family business has outlived Myron, and his son, Myron Jr. It has outlived Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, who bought embroidered blouses there during the folk revival of the 1960s, when the peasant look was all the rage. But recently, patrons learned that Surma has only a few days left, when Mr. Surmach’s grandson Markian announced that he would close the shop this month.

“You can trace the whole history of our community through this store,” said William M. Dubetz, 79, a security guard from the Bronx who has stopped by Surma for 61 years to pick up his weekly Ukrainian newspaper. “I don’t know what will happen to that culture once it closes.”


Photographs of Mr. Surmach’s grandfather Myron Sr., who started the business 98 years ago, selling records, clothes and other trinkets from the Ukraine. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

Mr. Dubetz was hardly alone in his words of regret. Over the weekend, Surma’s aisles were crowded with longtime customers, saying goodbye and wondering where they would go now to find painted pysanky eggs for Easter, or kutia, a sweet grain pudding, for their Christmas feasts.

“This store has connected our wave of immigrants to the 19th century,” said Vladimir Ginzburg, 72. “When it closes, that connection will go with it.”

Although the patch of the East Village around Seventh Street has long been known as Little Ukraine, many of the Eastern European emporiums that thrived there have closed in recent years. The Kiev, a beloved coffee shop, shut in 2000, followed by the Ukrainian Art and Literary Club and Odessa restaurant. And J. Baczynsky is a relic of a once competitive corps of Ukrainian butchers selling smoked meats. Now, St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Museum are among the dwindling number of institutions that invoke the neighborhood’s history.

“Inside here, nothing has changed, but outside, everything is different,” said Stephanie Czerepanyn, 72, who emigrated from Ukraine in 1951 and has worked at Surma since 1978, taking a bus and two trains from her home in Brooklyn.


Diners at the Kiev restaurant on East Seventh Street and Second Avenue, in 1980. It closed in 2000. Credit Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

Despite the gentrification of Little Ukraine (and its corresponding rent increases), Markian Surmach was not exactly forced out of his store. He owns the building, which his grandfather bought for $15,000. Its sale now is likely to fetch millions — a sum surely never envisioned by the young Myron Sr., whose mother sold a cow so he could afford to leave Ukraine. Although many customers bemoaned his decision, Mr. Surmach explained that sales have slumped since the 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union and the proliferation of cheap specialty goods online made Surma’s once scarce wares more readily available.

“Even if we own the building, the property taxes and upkeep are very expensive and have drowned out profits to the point where we’re barely floating,” Mr. Surmach, 54, said. “If we didn’t own the place, we’d have been out of business decades ago.”

Mr. Surmach added that he was considering taking the business online after the location closes.

Mike Buryk, a genealogist and historian of Ukrainian descent from North Caldwell, N.J., was saddened to hear that the store he had patronized for 50 years would soon be gone. “It felt like the passing of an old dear friend,” he said.

When he was a teenager, Mr. Buryk, now 66, began combing the shelves at Surma for books and embroidery as a way to reinforce his Ukrainian-American identity. He was particularly fond of the honey — a staple of Ukrainian cooking — which in those days came from an apiary tended by Myron Sr. after he handed the store to his son and moved to a farm in Saddle River, N.J.


“Inside here, nothing has changed,” said Stephanie Czerepanyn, 72, who has worked at Surma since 1978. “But outside, everything is different.” Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

“The number of Ukrainians living in East Village has certainly changed,” Mr. Buryk, who also writes for the Ukrainian Weekly, said. “They tended to make a good living, get educated and move out to suburbs. But for Ukrainians, the area still represents our cultural and religious focal point.”

About 71,000 Ukrainian-Americans live in the New York metropolitan area, which includes the city and its suburbs, according to the 2010 census. But after a post-World War II surge, few live in the East Village neighborhood that once anchored the community, Maria Shust, the director of the Ukrainian Museum, said. “The population has shrunk around here,” she said, noting that the nearby St. George Academy, a private, Ukrainian Catholic high school, had drastically cut its enrollment.

While Mr. Buryk understood the pressures on Mr. Surmach, Elena Solow said she was “not even speaking to Markian anymore.” Although she was visiting the store for the first time in nearly two years, she said she hated to see any family establishment close.

“When neighborhoods lose their history they lose their souls, and all that’s left is the Gap,” Ms. Solow, a jewelry dealer who lives in Chelsea, said.

“This will probably turn into a Starbucks,” she lamented as she walked out the door, hearing its familiar bell chime for the last time.