By Daniel Offner
Larry Sawlani, 69, owner of the Bayside Smoke Shop, at 41-05 Bell Blvd., died Saturday after a five-year battle with heart disease. A well-respected and recognized face in the community for more than 33 years, Sawlani was remembered fondly by those around him.
“He knew everybody in the neighborhood,” his son, Raj Sawlani, said. “Some of these customers have known me since I was born.”
According to Raj Sawlani, 29, his father was born in India and came to America as a child. After college, he moved around from Florida to Chicago, before settling down in New York. He went on to work as the general manager of Woolworth’s in Time Square, before he finally decided to open his own retail storefront in Bayside in 1982.
Carlo Ferrante, a 45-year Bayside resident and longtime customer, said he has warm memories of his discussions with the elder Sawlani about stocks and equities.
“I would always joke that he should have been a broker,” Ferrante said. “He was a great guy… It’s so sad to hear that he passed.”
Sherry Teran, co-president of the American Vision Eye Care Center next door, said she was surprised to hear about Sawlani’s death.
“I didn’t know him socially, but they have been our business neighbors for almost 32 years,” Teran said. “He was a very kind, nice man.”
Raj, 29, had worked with his father every day for the past five years and would manage the storefront whenever he could not. But, over the last 10 months, while his father had been in and out of the hospital due to various heart complications, an outpouring of residents had been stopping by to check up on him.
“We have 15 to 20 customers come in each day asking the guys who are there now about [my] dad,” Raj Sawlani said. “I wanted people to know what happened. They think he just left.”
On Saturday morning, at about 6:47 a.m., Larry Sawlani died at New York Presbyterian Hospital of Queens, from pnemonia brought on by his worsening heart condition. Even before his father was gone, the Sawlanis had decided to turn the business over to a group of experienced individuals who offered to help the father before he died.
“We already handed the business over to somebody else,” the son said. “I can’t go back to that store… I’m too emotionally attached.”
Raj Sawlani said that while he does not have the strength to continue running the business without his father, the new owners will carry on the tradition and keep the business going.
Larry Sawlani’s funeral was held Saturday in Richmond Hill and he was cremated the same day on Long Island. Any one who would like to make a donation in his memory should consider St. Judes Children’s Research Hospital at www.stjud