Tourists watch as Shmuel Klein, a scribe, works on a tefillin.
STEPHEN YANG FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The upshot: The Lubavitchers are here to inspire us with their example. “There is a spiritual war going on, and you are now at the vortex of the lamplighters!” said Rabbi Epstein. He declared his clients deputy lamplighters.
This was probably more than the tourists—couples from Finland, Holland and Nebraska—had bargained for. But the tour, a rare window into an otherwise closed community, included a fascinating peek at a morning prayer service and a visit with Hasidic scribes penning elegant scrolls with turkey feathers, not to mention kosher lunch at Mendy’s deli.
Rabbi Epstein says the growing demand for his tours brings its own difficulties. It’s hard to find area stops large enough to accommodate, say, 80 West Point cadets. “There’s no bathrooms here,” he says. “Other people don’t think about this, but I do.”
He hopes proceeds from the $42 tours will help fund the construction of his planned Hasidic visitors center, with hotel rooms, a matzo bakery, a rooftop garden and, of course, plenty of bathrooms. Years ago, he bought a vacant lot in Crown Heights for $150,000. The problem: He still needs $25 million for construction. The city, meanwhile, is threatening to sell the $94,000 tax lien on the lot. “I’m a better educator than fundraiser,” he says.
It’s safe to bet no one ever got rich giving tours. Insiders say guides on double-decker buses earn about $20 an hour, while the top independents might peak out at $100,000 a year. On the other hand, it doesn’t take much to get started. You can get a city license by answering correctly 97 of the 150 questions on the Sightseeing Guide Exam, which covers topics like landmarks, subway lines and history.
Some guides don’t even bother with that. “Everyone and his uncle would like to be a tour guide, and we have a lot of people doing it illegally,” says Harvey Davidson, spokesman for the Guides Association of NYC. He frets about the guides who say the statue of Daniel Webster in Central Park represents the guy behind the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Wrong Webster.
But some of the new-wave guides say the test just doesn’t apply to their brand of adventuring. Jeff Orlick, whose popular $59 Roosevelt Avenue Midnight Street Crawl in Queens starts at a Mexican karaoke joint and includes a stop for butter tea at a Tibetan fast food joint tucked behind a cellphone store tucked behind a DVD store, says he’s just a neighborhood guy sharing his interests.
Rather than schedule tours for huge herds, he uses Vayable, a boutique indy-tour website, to offer private excursions. Anyone can hire him at their convenience, as long the hours don’t conflict with his day job in TV.
He’s not the only tour operator experimenting with new business models. Free Tours by Foot lets customers pay what they wish at the end of the tour. The premise is that, like a waiter working for tips, the guides will work extra hard to earn their bacon.
On a recent three-hour tour of SoHo and Chinatown, guide John Gallagher, a strapping former bartender, offered his highly personal take on downtown to a crowd of followers from Israel, Paris and Santa Monica. Between stops at a fried dumpling joint and an Italian bakery, he declared that the best restaurant in New York City is Wo Hop, a cheap, subterranean Cantonese place on Mott Street; that sales of knockoff handbags on Canal Street may or may not be used to finance terrorism; and that one can see a Broadway show for free by slipping in with the crowd at intermission: “But you need a little larceny in your heart.”
Free Tours by Foot founder Stephen Pickhardt says his guides average about $10 per tourist; the company, which organizes the tours and provides marketing support, works on the honor system, pocketing about 20% of the take.
Business is booming, he says; the company offers up to nine NYC tours a day, covering areas such as Brooklyn Heights and Harlem. One barrier to faster growth? Hiring, says Mr. Pickhardt: “It’s hard to find noncrazy tour guides.”
Corrections & Amplifications
In an earlier version of this article, a photograph of scribes working on religious items incorrectly referred to a tefillin as a mezuzah.
Aliquam maximus, nisi ut pretium luctus, magna turpis eleifend arcu, accumsan congue nibh urna sed ipsum. Mauris mattis non neque vel hendrerit. Cras gravida, velit vitae semper aliquet, metus tellus eleifend odio, ut facilisis risus sapien.
Quisque imperdiet erat eget elit varius varius. In nec dui lobortis, accumsan eros et, tempus mauris. Nunc vestibulum ligula a ultrices imperdiet. Fusce at orci molestie erat euismod ultricies et eu erat. Aenean vulputate erat id dui dapibus, vitae iaculis felis vulputate. Quisque volutpat porttitor leo vitae pretium. Maecenas fringilla urna vitae porta commodo. Sed sit amet nisl accumsan, dictum erat in, vestibulum dolor. Donec maximus hendrerit urna. Morbi dictum tristique purus.