Rhinestone Pigs Leave the Building

John Gotti, notoriously stylish as he was, never craved a rhinestone piglet. For years he walked past Charles’ Place at 234 Mulberry Street, on his way to and from his Ravenite Social Club, “but he never patronized us,” Charles Elkaim, the shop’s owner laughs. Now the former Ravenite is a snazzy shoe store and, after 18 years on the block, Elkaim is packing up his dinosaur necklaces and monkey ear bobs and bejeweled bat bracelets and closing next week.

When Charles’ Place opened, there was a parking lot across the street and FBI agents regularly cruised the neighborhood, which for decades had been known as Little Italy, the Nolita moniker being far in the future. Word of mouth and articles in places like Le Figaro and Japanese Bazaar spread the news about Charles and his hand-made creations—no one can set a garter on a miniature Betty Boop’s thigh like Elkaim—turning his shop into a destination for quirky collectors.

Once Charles’ Place looked out on a parking lot. Now the lot is gone, replaced by an upscale fashion boutique and a quiet, tasteful Ricky’s (which is, for all its dark wood shelving and a sign that reads “natural for the mind, sprit and complete body,” in the end just a Ricky’s). Elkaim and his wife, Yvette, who, in their 41 years of decorating animals, have built a fan base that includes Jade Jagger, herself a jeweler, say they will operate their business over the Internet, but one worries—when asked for their Web address, they confess they don’t have one yet.

In the end, there are few things sadder than a special little shop closing. “It’s a nightmare,” Elkaim sighs. “We’re even getting rid of our beautiful cabinets.”

And indeed, it is a nightmare—one we feel a tiny bit responsible for, if only because we were initially enthusiastic about the shifting retail landscape in Nolita. Our pulse always quickens when new boutiques open, and because we are possessed of a particularly slow learning curve, it never really sinks in that inevitably these darling shops will gobble up grocery stores, shoe repairers, and quirky one-of-a-kind holes in the wall that sell cartoon earrings.

That said, we aren’t all that upset to find that the gigantic Salvation Army at 69 Spring Street has vanished. Not being particular fans of Sally Ann (we never find the great things others seem to turn up) it takes us a minute to realize that it has been replaced by a place called Pylones. We are immediately taken with a kitschy faux-vintage souvenir pillow in the window, hand embroidered with scenes of Paris, which is actually just the sort of item lots of people manage to find at thrift shops for, like, $7. Alas, this one is a depressing $150.

We are ashamed by the rapidity with which we fall for the whimsically-patterned French sugar bowls, toasters, radios, flasks, ash trays (the French still smoke), and other goods rendered in dazzling, high gloss baked enamel. Given the fact that they flaunt cow-skin spots, hallucinogenic bubbles, and other designs not usually found on common household items, the prices—a toaster is $69—seem quite reasonable (especially when compared with a $150 cushion).

But not all the frankly silly merch is costly. A mermaid bottle opener—didn’t know you needed this?—is $24; the frog tape dispenser—another must have!—is $14, and the perfect summer house gift, the twirling spaghetti fork—yes! Bring this and of course you’ll be invited back!—is an extremely palatable $12.


Cigar Bar

It is the question that continues to perplex the would-be cyberbusinessman: just how do you make money off the Internet?

For Lawrence Amoruso, the answer has been simple: sell cigars, and lots of them.

The Little Italy businessman, who last year opened the Three Little Indians cigar shop on Mulberry Street, isusing the Net to help cash in on the nationwide tobacco trend. Visitors to Amoruso’s Web site will find price lists for humidors, lighters, ashtrays, and a wide selection of cigars.

Amoruso, 38, proudly notes that his bustling shop, in a year’s time, has ”become famous all over the country as having one of the best selections of cigars around.” Indeed, his Web site offers all the brands (Cohiba, Arturo Fuente, Bahia, Davidoff) and sizes (robustos, Churchills, tubos, double-coronas) that a discriminating smoker would want.

And Amoruso has made it fairly easy for electronic shoppers to make a purchase. When you settle on a smoke, you can call a toll-free number and place your order, which will then be delivered by either UPS or Federal Express. All you have to do is give Amoruso your credit card number. As his Web sitepoints out, the businessman ”proudly” accepts Diners Club, American Express, Visa, and MasterCard.

And therein lies the rub.

Amoruso is a convicted felon–a credit card cheat, no less–who launched his cigar business only months after completing a federal prison term. In 1994, Amoruso pleaded guilty to charges that he was part of a ring that used stolen credit card numbers to make scores of unauthorized transactions, many of which were illegally run through an apparel company Amoruso then operated.

For his role in the scam, which was uncovered by Secret Service agents, Amoruso was sentenced to 18 months inprison and ordered to repay four credit card companies a total of $467,100. He was also sentenced to two years probation, which continues until early next year.

But in a freewheeling conversation with the Voice about cigars, computers, and credit card fraud, the voluble Amoruso assured that consumers would not be scalped by Three Little Indians. And, in fact,the Voice did not uncover any consumer complaints about Amoruso’s operation.

Asked whether he thought customers, if they knew of his criminal history, might think twice about parting with their credit card information, Amoruso said, ”I understand what you’re saying and there is some validity to it, but…should I put on my Web site, ‘By the way, I was involved with some people that had bad credit cards and stuff, so you might not want to order a box of cigars from me.’?”

Noting that, as a teenager, he was arrested for drivingwhile intoxicated, Amoruso wondered whether that bust should have precluded him from ever again getting behind the wheel. Referring to his felony rap, Amoruso said, ”I’m not embarrassed over it, because something happened. I was stuck in the middle and there was nothing I could do.” Sometimes, he said,”you just gotta keep your mouth shut and then that’s the end of that.”

While Amoruso’s release terms allow for his probation officer to order him to ”notify third parties of risks that may be occasioned by the defendant’s criminal record or personal history or characteristics,” the cigar salesman said that he has not been directed to make such a disclosure. Amoruso, who lives on Grand Street, said probation officials are well aware of his business pursuits: ”I see them every two weeks….The parole officer is on Mulberry Street every single day, he’s got plenty of stops over there.”

Inlight of his fraud conviction, it would seem that credit card companies would want nothing to do with Amoruso’s latest business venture. That is assuming, of course, that they are even aware of his involvement in Three Little Indians. Amoruso has apparently sidestepped that sticky problem by making sure that agreements with credit card companies do not bear his name, only those of his partners. ”The thing is in their name, it’s not in my name,” he said.

In addition to his retail business, Amoruso also hosts occasional ”cigar parties” at Florio’s, a Grand Street restaurant owned by his father, Ralph, a partner in Three Little Indians. According to a law enforcement source, as part of his fraud scheme,the younger Amoruso illegally secured the credit card numbers of some Florio’s patrons and used them to make unauthorized purchases. Neither Ralph Amoruso or Florio’s was implicated or charged in connection with his son’s operation.

Shortly after leaving federal custody last May, Amoruso opened Three Little Indians at 140 Mulberry Street, in a storefront that has long been the subject of law enforcement scrutiny. The cigar shop occupies the front section of the venerable Andrea Doria social club, a longtime hangout for members and associates of the Gambino crime family. For years, the club served as the headquarters for family captain Joseph ”Joe Butch” Corrao. Gambino boss John Gotti was a club regular who often hosted weekly dinners inside the Andrea Doria, which is far more spacious than the Ravenite Social Club, located a few blocks north.

Despite his shop’s location inside a wiseguy haunt, Amoruso said he has ”nothing to do with any of the John Gotti crap because, number one, that was never John Gotti’s club. ”Anyhow, he added, the club these days is only visited by a handful of harmless pensioners who sit around playing cards. ”Regardless of who used to hang out there or what, if someone was killed in a building, does that mean the building is a bad building?”

But Amoruso hardly shies from the Mafia aurasurrounding the Andrea Doria. ”I mean, don’t get me wrong…people eat that shit up!They love it!” In fact, after a 1990 Gotti acquittal, Amoruso gushed to USA Today thatthe crime figure ”appeals to the evilside of people. People wish they could do what hedoes, but are too scared to do it.”

Amoruso, who works seven days a week in hisstore, has seen his business swell with the launchearlier this year of his Web site. A self-taught Macintosh user, Amoruso said he sometimes stays upto three in the morning answering e-mails from across the globe, notes soliciting prices and availability of certain cigar brands. To further familiarize himself with Web workings, Amoruso noted that ”I just bought Claris HomePage 2.0.”

The Three LittleIndians Web site, which lists a toll-free telephone number, triggers upwards of 50 calls aday and 20 mail orders a week, said Amoruso, who has recently shipped products to customers in Australia, Hawaii, and England. The businessman added that he expects to soon upgrade his Web site so that customers worldwide can order online, 24 hours a day. Cigar aficionados will only have tokey in their credit card information and mailing address to place an order.

But this sensitive financial information, Amoruso assured,will be protected from prying eyes by the most advanced encryption software available.