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Inside NYC's Craziest Store
At Bingers Bargain Bins in Queens, the Price Depends On the Day
Welcome to Issue #25 of CAFÉ ANNE!
Last week’s feature, in which I tracked down one of the donut wholesalers supplying NYC’s coffee carts, seems to have raised more questions than it answered.
The most frequent query from readers: Where do the street cart bagels come from?
I actually know the answer. But the wholesale bakery, which is also located in Queens and bills itself the “World’s Largest Wholesaler of Fresh Baked Bagels” (1.6 billion and counting!) asked me not reveal its name due to “contractual issues.” Fine!
They did state, however, that they serve 40 commissaries throughout NYC which supply the coffee carts with about 1,500 dozen bagels daily. They make 24 bagel favors including egg and Kalamata olive, but the carts only carry the top ten varieties: plain, poppy, sesame, cinnamon raisin, everything, whole wheat, multigrain, onion, garlic and pumpernickel.
Reader Ryan VB in San Francisco, meanwhile, wrote to express disappointment that in a city of 8.5 million people, Nice and Fresh Inc. produces just 15,000 donuts a day for the city’s coffee carts. “I would have guessed that even pandemic-era NYC would have munched through 100K a day,” he wrote. “15K is kind of puny. Obviously, I have found another way to lose on a quiz show…”
Sadly, the math checks out. I'd estimate that of the city’s 3,000-odd licensed food carts, MAYBE 20% sell donuts. Also from my reporting, I know that the typical coffee cart sells 1-2 dozen donuts a day. Let's call it 18 donuts per cart: 3000 x .2 x 18 = 10,800 donuts/day.
That's actually less than the 15,000 Nice and Fresh Inc. says it bakes daily, but the wholesaler is also supplying hospitals, coffee shops and retail bakeries in addition to the coffee carts.
No street cart mysteries in this week’s issue—just some crazy-ass retail happenings! Please enjoy this week’s feature, Inside NYC’s Craziest Store, below. Those curious about newsletter economics, meanwhile, will enjoy the first CAFÉ ANNE Progress Report at the end.
Inside NYC’s Craziest Store
Bingers Bargain Bins, in Astoria, Queens, is New York City’s craziest store. It closes for two days in the middle of each week to receive a truckload of returned merchandise from Amazon, purchased by the ton. Employees distribute the load, completely unsorted, in rough-hewn bins. When the store reopens Friday morning, every item is priced at $10.99. On Saturday, every item in the store costs $8.49. The price drops continue until Tuesday, when you can buy any two items for $2.99. When store closes on Wednesday, the cycle starts anew.
On a recent Friday morning, Will Ponsot, who had arrived an hour before the store’s 10 am opening, was the first in line, armed with two shopping bags and a thermos of Earl Grey tea. Mr. Ponsot, who is 44 and lives just a few blocks away, has been coming every Friday and Monday since he discovered the store last November.
“I just stumbled across it on Google Maps and I was like, ‘Oh, hey, that sounds interesting,’” he said. “I've always watched shows like Storage Wars and American Pickers, and I've always wanted to treasure hunt a little bit and see if I can figure out the real value of things on the fly.”
“You name it, I've seen it in the bins,” he continued. ”From handgun speed re-loaders to breast pumps and all sorts of sex-related things. Books, food, tools, fixtures, faucets—you name it! Goat deworming pills! Just go look on Amazon. What can you find on Amazon, that’s what ends up in these bins.”
Like many of the regulars, he started out buying things for himself—bedding, sunglasses, teeshirts. “Then I realized I could eBay this stuff,” he said. “This is a side-hustle for me.”
“What’s your main thing?” I asked.
‘What do you mean?”
“You said this is a side hustle.”
“Oh, well, I’m a cannabis dealer,” said Mr. Ponsot. “It still feels awkward to say that. It still makes me nervous!”
Pot sales have fallen sharply with the coming legalization—everyone’s getting into the game. “I was making so much money during the pandemic,” he said. “My business is down about half now.”
“I'm trying to launch an edibles brand,” he continued. He has a new Instagram-based business, The Cookie King of Queens. “But it's tough. I don't have a lot of startup capital. So Bingers is kind of helping at this moment.”
Among his recent finds, which he resold on eBay: a brand-new $800 Sprint 5G phone, a TV streaming appliance and a remote control for a barb-b-cue.
He glanced at the line of 30 shoppers behind him. “At first, there weren't that many people,” he said of store, which opened last spring, “But now it's getting a lot more popular.”
Next in line was Joan Mitchell of Forest Hills, Queens. This was her first visit to Bingers. “I had a coworker who told me I gotta check it out,” she said. “So I called my partner in crime.”
“I’m excited to go in there,” she said. “I love bargains, and I do a lot of impulse buying—which I won’t do today! I’d like to get an air fryer and an Instant Pot.”
Her friend Carmen Lazar was hoping for deals on pet food: “It’s so expensive!”
Anchoring the end of the line was a ponytailed man dressed in black. “My name’s Anonymous,” he said. “Is that fair?”
“Why do you want to be anonymous?” I asked.
“It’s safe,” he said.
Mr. Anonymous backed away. “Listen! I think I might decline this interview!”
At 10 am, the doors opened and the shoppers rushed in. Inside the cavernous warehouse, with its concrete floors and electric blue walls, 17 bins—twice the length of ping-pong tables—stood overflowing with a jumble of cartons and packages. Mr. Ponsot headed straight for the back.
“You know, a lot of these people, they run around and they look at all the bins really quick,” he said. “They’re passing over tons of shit. I’m just going to pick a spot and I’m really going to dig in.”
He sorted through items one by one. Some he immediately discarded, others he bagged for further inspection. Before he buys anything, he’ll research the item online.
“You can say, ‘Oh that’s a $50 item!’ But then you look at the reviews and it's like, two stars. Or it's been discontinued and you know that it's a piece of crap,” he said.
He bagged a set of 300-watt car speakers and passed on an acrylic blanket (“I only buy cotton!”) His eyes lit up when he unearthed a small box. “Look at this! Completely unmarked in every way. There could be anything in here! It could be filled with gold bars, right?”
He sliced the packing tape with his key and opened the box. Contents: one soap dish.
I was expecting a chaotic scene, but the atmosphere was one of quiet determination and intense focus. By 10:30, many shoppers had stockpiled a small mountain of finds in various corners of the store for further assessment. Several declined to talk. “I’m in the groove, sorry!”
Singh Eshwar, a landlord who owns three homes in the Bronx, was bagging items to furnish his units: a shower head and a light fixture. He’d also found a pair of knee pads. “You never know what you’ll need!”
I checked in with Ms. Mitchell. She hadn’t found an air fryer but was pleased with three finds: a charging station, a hot air brush and a heating pad.
“Are these things you needed?” I asked.
“No,'“ she said.
Binger’s manager is 28-year-old Sam Kirby, who moved to NYC last year from Alabama when his fiancee got a job teaching kindergarten in the Bronx. “I was like, ‘Well, Jackie, you know, I've never been to New York City, but it sounds like it could be an adventure!’”
They moved to Queens. Mr. Kirby finished his associates degree online and wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of his life. “I don't know what I want for dinner tomorrow. How can I know that?” he said. “So I just applied for a retail job thinking it would be just, you know, counting up the items when people come up, and counting the cash. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.”
He started at Binger’s last August and was promoted to manager in January. He typically works with two helpers—one to work the register, another patrolling the bins to remove empty boxes and packaging trash.
When the truck arrives every week, it’s loaded with 24 pallets of Amazon returns, purchased by pound. The load doesn’t come directly from Amazon but from a larger reseller. And Bingers isn’t the last stop in the chain. Any items left unsold after Tuesday’s two-for-$3 sale are typically sold to smaller bargain stores or resellers who ship the assortment to overstock dealers in countries like Mexico and Guayana.
A pallet costs roughly $1000, says Mr. Kirby. The huge cardboard boxes—roughly the size of a commercial refrigerator—come unlabled and filled with an unsorted jumble of anything that might be returned to Amazon. Mr. Smith marvels at the fact that Bingers pays the same rate per pound for a set of Apple Airpods as for a pair of shoes or a 2019 daily planner: “It’s crazy to think about!”
And this is just the start. Bingers just started offering returned merchandise from Target and hopes to add Home Depot to the mix in the coming weeks. “I'm grateful because I really love this place,” said Mr. Kirby. “It's so neat, such a unique concept. And that leads to a lot of fun.”
Out on the store floor, Mr. Ponsot was sorting through his finds, deciding what to buy and what to return to the bins. “I don't think I quite scored like last week,” he said, surveying his pile.
The Yeti thermos mug he found retails for $40, but would fetch just $20 on eBay, so it’s not worth Bingers’s $10.99 Friday price, he said. He’ll return on Monday in hopes of buying it for $3.49. “I’ll put it in a corner and hope it gets overlooked.”
He Googled the car speakers and found they retail for $25: “Totally not worth it.”
“I have no idea what that’s worth, but it says 1600 watts…” he said, googling an immersion water heater. “So here we go…'Heaters recalled due to shock!’ Okay, I may end up putting everything back and not finding anything today.”
“It’s odd that a company as smart as Amazon can't figure out how to sort the good stuff from the bad stuff,” I said.
“I think it's because they're so big that financially, it just does not make sense for them to go through their returns,” said Mr. Kirby, who had joined us.
“My joke is that these are the crumbs that fall off of Lord Bezos’s plate,” said Mr. Ponsot. “His empire, his wealth, is so vast that just the crumbs that drift off the edges are worth hundreds and hundreds of dollars.”
Mr. Anonymous came over. “I’ve got a winner for you!” he said, tossing an item at Mr. Ponsot. It was a purple butt plug.
Mr. Ponsot ignored Mr. Anonymous and googled a digital label maker. Another dud.
“So you know, this actually might be a zero day for me,” he said. “It happens. But look—I scored like $500 worth of shit for 20 bucks last week.”
Mr. Kirby nodded appreciatively. “It's balancing,” he said. “That's nature doing its thing.”
CAFÉ ANNE PROGRESS REPORT #1
On My First 1500 Subscribers and Finally Going Semi-Sort-of Viral-Ish
When I launched CAFÉ ANNE on Substack, I explained to my dad that after two decades working as a business journalist, I was going write a newsletter devoted exclusively to topics I thought it’d be fun to cover. My vague marketing plan: post on the usual social media outlets and hope something went viral.
“Like cancer?” asked my father.
“Yes,” I said, “Like cancer.”
Things have yet to metastasize. But I thought it’d be fun to share my experience six months in.
I launched in October after emailing friends and family about ISSUE #1—a profile of Ted Kaye, the world’s foremost authority on flag design. Why did Mr. Kaye agree to an interview for a non-existent newsletter? I’ll never know.
That first effort garnered 92 subscribers, 27 of them paid—and all folks I knew personally.
Several week later, I got super lucky. Author Rob Walker devoted almost an entire issue of his own popular Substack newsletter, The Art of Noticing, to CAFÉ ANNE and encouraged his readers to check it out. Almost overnight I added another 600 free subscribers and doubled my paid subscriber base. Thank you Mr. Walker!
It was slow going after that. Week after week after week, I added just a handful of free subscribers and one or two paid subscriptions.
Did I feel discouraged? No! Why? Because I’m out of my mind. Also, I was having a lot of fun. Between writing freelance real estate and startup stories for legit business publications, I was interviewing the Naked Cowboy about his morning routine and doing roundups of puppies who donated their kidneys to kittens. Plus, it was great to get all the comments and emails from CAFÉ ANNE readers, who turned out to be a funny, warm-hearted and curious crowd. Best of all, no editor telling me what I can and cannot do!
Finally at the end of March, my interviews with chess hustlers in Washington Square Park went semi-sort-of viral. It did well on NYC Reddit, then Hacker News (why?) and then folks like economist Tyler Cowen (Mr. Marginal Revolution!) started linking to it from their own blogs and newsletters.
Until then, a typical issue was getting about 2,000 views. But the chess issue got more than 65,000 views—puny by internet standards, but a lot for CAFÉ ANNE.
So how did those views translate into subscription growth?
The heightened profile created by the chess piece seems to have generated more readers for each subsequent issue—issues #23 and #25 also went semi-viral and got more than 10,000 views. Since late March, my total subscription base grew from 860 to 1495. That means I’m getting roughly one new subscriber for every 150 views.
In the past few weeks, meanwhile, my paid subscriber base grew from 65 to 72. That works out to roughly one additional paid subscriber for every 12,000 views.
How does this translate into income and wages?
It varies from week to week, but between the reporting, photography, transcribing, writing, editing and formatting, a typical newsletter takes 10-15 hours to produce.
Given my current annualized revenue of $4,360, and 50 issues a year, that works out to $7.26 an hour after Substack takes its 10% cut. Haha! What am I doing? I don’t care! It’s by far my favorite money I’ve ever earned.
I think it’s kind of amazing to have 72 paying subscribers when folks can read CAFÉ ANNE for free. But I get it—I also pay for a number of free-access newsletters and podcasts. Not out of guilt, but because it’s fun to support the creators. I wish I could afford more!
Doing a bit more math, I also calculated that to support myself entirely through CAFÉ ANNE (which would require roughly 1,500 paid subscribers), I simply need to write a series of super-viral features that generate another 17 million page views.
This may sound impossible, but I am optimistic. Reality is very bendy.
Next update in three months. Wish me luck!
CAFÉ ANNE is a free newsletter created by Brooklyn journalist Anne Kadet. Subscribe to get the latest issue every Monday!