As nearly any Levittown resident who has wandered the aisles of Center Lane Stationary in the last ten years will tell you, anytime you walk in to the shop you can expect to be greeted with a warm welcome and a big smile from store owner Avi Ghandi.
“Avi is a great guy and we want to show we support him,” said Steve Shaughnessy, a Levittown resident who stops in at least once a week for lottery tickets and snacks.
When Celeste-Hamilton Dennis and her husband Craig eventually left their childhood homes in Long Island for Portland Ore., where they currently reside, they continued to think of Avi, for his kind words, captivating stories, and big heart. They even invited him to the bridal shower.
“He is well loved in the community because he treats everyone as more than a customer,” Celeste said.
This story originally appeared in the June 25, 2014 edition of the Levittown Tribune.
So, to show Avi how much he has meant to the Levittown community over the years, Craig and Celeste orchestrated a flash mob to try and help send Avi out in style by having some of his usual clientele clear out some of the dust-covered “chachkies” that fill the shelves before Center Lane Stationary shutters its doors.
“We wanted to have people who love him come in,” Craig said.
To organize the flash mob, Craig and Celeste created a Facebook group “Surprise Flash Mob for Center Lane Stationary,” and even placed a calendar item in the Levittown Tribune as a “surprise fete for local business.”
In order to make sure Avi was unaware to Craig and Celeste’s plan, they told Avi a little white lie… that on the day of the flash mob, Celeste was going to have her friend film the Center Lane Stationary for a book she was working on.
On June 21, dozens of residents gathered at the playground across the street, just before 11 a.m., to make signs and write encouraging letters for Avi. As more and more people started to arrive, Craig and Celeste lined everyone up outside the store, before sending in some of Avi’s favorite customers, one group at a time, to purchase any item in the store.
Peter Louise who Avi affectionately calls ‘Mr. Pete,’ said he has known Avi ever since he took over Center Lane Stationary ten years ago. He said, Avi would often talk about how he used to work at a hotel in Manhattan, but was let go after a change in management.
“He used to know a lot of politicians and movie stars,” Louise said. “Now he just knows the common folk of Levittown.”
Mr. Pete considers himself to be Avi’s ‘left-hand man,’ a term he and Avi coined. He even picks him up in the morning on his way to work.
Karen Bennett said she has been shopping at Center Lane Stationary since 1965, even before Avi came to Levittown, but always considered Avi to be her guru.
“He is my go-to-guy whenever I need words of encouragement,” Bennett said.
Bennett said she sees Avi as one of the most fascinating storytellers in the community, because each of his tales have a point to make. She added that he has always been there when she needed help and is a very humble person.
“Sometimes just smiling is a way of thanking someone,” Bennett said of Avi. “You can’t make a person up like that.”
The Phillips family said their dad has been buying his lottery tickets at Center Lane Stationary for over 50 years, and when he was no longer able to walk, he would phone in his numbers to Avi.
Celeste and Craig even went to the trouble of contacting Avi’s friends Nikhil, Urmila, Varsha and Jugal Pandya from Hicksville, to stop in their friend Avi’s store. As the day went on, more and more people came swarming into his shop, and Avi became overwhelmed. After about an hour of conversation with his favorite customers, Craig and Celeste finally brought him outside for the big reveal.
When asked if he ever suspected what was going on, he replied, “not in the slightest.”
“Pray for me that I get a brand new lease, so I can continue to serve all you lovely people,” Avi said, tears still dribbling down his face. “This is a beautiful, beautiful town. This is such a blessing that you all help me so very much. Thank you.”