Every weekend, Belmont-born suburbanites pour down Arthur Avenue to shop, chow and reminisce. The neighborhood, a vibrant Italian-American enclave, is a full-blown tourist destination.
And what do nostalgic tourists prize above all other knickknacks? The t-shirt.
Last December, Frank Franz and Richie Legnini opened Belmont Boutique, a t-shirt and souvenir shop in the Arthur Avenue Retail Market.
“We opened a few weeks before Christmas with 500 shirts,” Franz said. “We thought, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ By Christmas, all 500 shirts were gone.”
Franz is Belmont’s biggest booster. He once owned a restaurant on Arthur Avenue. He heads the neighborhood’s small business association. He rents property to Fordham students.
“There used to be a carpet store on Arthur Avenue – Silvestri Carpets,” Franz said. “The guy, Silvestri, sold Belmont t-shirts. He opened a little shop and called it the Belmont Boutique. It was a big success.”
Silvestri Carpets moved to the south Bronx eight years ago, leaving Arthur Avenue t-shirtless. Tourists and neighbors kept asking, “Where can I get a Belmont t-shirt?’ Franz would sigh and shrug his shoulders.
So Franz teamed up with Legnini, a graphic artist. The new Belmont Boutique sells aprons, calendars, tote bags, cookbooks and t-shirts. Espresso cups are on the way.
The top seller is a black t-shirt with white script. “A friend will help you move, but a real friend will help you move the body,” it reads.
“I wish I had a quarter for every customer who laughed at that one,” said Charles Capezzoto, who manages the shop. “People get a kick out of it.”
Other t-shirts include “University of Arthur Avenue,” “Don’t mess with me, my uncle is from Arthur Avenue” and “Arthur Avenue, USA.”
“The shirt that says ‘don’t mess with me’ – you kind of have to be from around here to wear it,” Capezzoto said, chuckling.
According to Franz, Belmont’s weekenders are surprisingly affluent. They hail from Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New Jersey and Upstate.
“We have Arthur Avenue Gourmet around the corner, selling vinegar for $100 a bottle,” he said. “People leave Belmont loaded down with meat.”
Franz, chief architect of Belmont’s new Business Improvement District, imagines Arthur Avenue bursting with art galleries, theaters and antique shops. The neighborhood’s future is tourism, he said.
“I never thought I’d see a t-shirt shop in the market,” said Lee, a Belmont-born tourist from North Carolina. “I come back for the traditional stuff. This is something new.”