By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008
NEW YORK -- "Euros Only" reads a handmade sign in Billy's Antiques & Props on East Houston Street in Manhattan. But that's really just an attention grabber. Actually, owner Billy Leroy explains, the store will accept Canadian dollars and British pounds, and U.S. dollars, too.
Leroy is one of a small but growing group of New York merchants in tourist-favored neighborhoods such as SoHo, the East Village and Times Square who have begun to accept the euro and other foreign currencies.
With the dollar near its lowest rate ever against the euro and the numbers of international tourists in New York at all-time highs, some store owners figure accepting the euro offers a convenience to customers and sometimes generates a stockpile of a strong currency for themselves.
Leroy began accepting euros after a buying trip to a Paris flea market in November, when the exchange rate meant he couldn't afford to purchase his usual volume of dressers, mirrors and wax figurines. This is his way to raise euros back home.
"European customers are here, buying apartments, and when they're buying apartments, they're here buying furniture for the apartments," said Leroy, in his shop, smoking a cigar. "This weekend, 50 percent of my customers were European."
The precipitous fall of the dollar -- currently one euro is worth nearly $1.50 -- has already changed the city.
Last year, the weak currency helped draw 8.5 million foreign visitors to New York, more than ever before, said George Fertitta, chief executive of NYC & Co., the city's tourism operation, and what they have been buying is as varied as lingerie and condominiums. Tourists generated $28 billion in spending last year and supported more than 350,000 jobs, and Europeans represent the largest group of foreign visitors, he said.
The plummeting dollar and rising euro have even entered popular culture. Rapper Jay-Z has a video in which he cruises New York streets flashing wads of euros.
"I need euros," said Garba Bar¿, a street vendor who sells cellphone covers and iPod cases from a table on Broadway in SoHo. He explained that he is from Niger, which he visits frequently and where the euro is commonly used.
"The dollar's going down," he said. "I don't want to change it before I go home."
Around Times Square, merchants accepting euros are diverse. Among them: Landmark Gallery, which sells brass elephants and horses, and porcelain knights in armor; 810 Deli & Cafe, which offers sandwiches, soups and salads; and Joe Perez, a comedy promoter who stands on Seventh Avenue hawking tickets to shows.
"Just in the past few months, we started to accept euros," said Alex Zaidi, a clerk at nearby JK Electronics. "That way we keep our customers" if they don't have U.S. cash on hand.
Then there's Robert Chu, an owner of East Village Wines, who said his foreign-currency customers are actually local residents who are frequent travelers and euro hoarders ready to spend whichever currency is expedient.
He has been accepting European bank notes for years -- back when they were francs and marks -- but last year he did more business in foreign currencies than ever before, he said, a 10 to 15 percent increase from the previous year. He also accepts yen, British pounds and Canadian dollars.
U.S. currency is the only legal tender money in the United States, but parties can agree to satisfy a debt by other means.
"We have no problem with New York City stores finding new ways to get Europeans to spend more money here, provided they don't get ripped off on the exchange rate and still pay the sales tax," said Stu Loeser, chief spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
But most Europeans don't expect to spend their own currency away from home, said Pia Staedtler, 22, from Germany, laughing at the thought as she shopped near Times Square. Besides, she said, it gives her an exotic, exciting "holiday feeling" to carry American dollars in her wallet.
However, some people in the United States don't appreciate stores here dealing in foreign currencies. "I get mail saying I'm un-American," said Leroy, the antique shop owner. "But it's American to adapt."