Local passport: Astoria

7 DECEMBER, 2010

MANHATTANITES HAVE A SORT OF LOCAL JOKE about Queens, “Do I need a passport to get there?” Before I moved to Astoria, I made that joke. A lot. And usually added, “And remind me where that is?”

But now, after five years of living in pre-war, tree-lined happiness, I’m  ‘hood-proud. In fact, I don’t want to tell you all the things I love about this neighborhood, because I don’t want other refugees coming here and driving up the prices or driving down the quality of service. So there!

But, recently, I profiled a couple of small businesses for my regular amNewYork beat that remind me all over again why Astoria is unique (but, really–don’t move here!). And in the spirit of holiday giving, I thought I’d share.

OK, so one Manhattan refugee we welcome is chef George McKirdy who opened the simple and delicious Astor Bake Shop in a neighborhood that we politely call “fringe.” It sits on a peculiar junction, cater-corner from an industrial garage (where they very kindly filled the tire on my 1973 Kent Dutch three-speed bicycle—and then asked to buy it). The other buildings are an unremarkable mix of residential and commercial, except for the “Big Fat Greek Wedding” house a few doors down. But even were it not for the uninspired surroundings, the bake shop would stand out with its muted cranberry exterior, large storefront windows and gorgeously restored interior.

McKirdy’s story: a former aspiring ballet dancer turned airline employee turned chef and master baker. Read it and eat.

LAST WEEK I popped into a store on 30th Avenue that I’ve passed 100 times without much consideration. Inside, a jaw-dropping array of kits, tools and accessories for the hobbyist, stacked floor to ceiling and running the entire length of the store (and then some, I suspect), called Rudy’s Hobby Shop. The place was formerly a soda counter circa 1939, and run by Marvin “Rudy” Cochran’s in-laws. “Rudy,” as people know him, and his wife took over the fountain shop. You can still see the faint footprint of counter stools on the deco-styled terrazzo floor, and behind the precarious stacks of models, mirrored walls with swirly accents. After 25 years, instead of upgrading the equipment, Rudy turned to planes, trains and automobiles. He says the shop just sort of evolved from a life-long interest in trains.

Rudy in his wonderous hobby shop. Photo: Celia Talbot Tobin

Over the years, he’s added other merchandise such as religious items, which he picks up at flea markets. People bring their stuff to him, too—volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, some out-of-date text books and some pretty great-looking (if not eclectic) vinyl. My favorites: album art from “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma!” (I’m no fan of musicals, but I can’t resist the floaty seduction of Bali Hai.) But you can also get a balsa wood glider kit ($6.29), Lionel trains and all the things to create and populate a village, military models, house models (bungalows and Colonials and such from the “Lovely Ladies Home Series“), and other toys of patience.

Unlike other merchants in the commercial corridor, Rudy hasn’t adorned his store with holiday lights and tinsel. He just figures if you’re a builder, you will come.

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