By Sabina Mollot
William Koniuk, the founder of the The Frenchmen air conditioner shop on First Avenue, has died at 87.
His son Glenn said Koniuk, who’d battled cancer his whole life, became very ill in the past couple of months and died on Saturday, July 25.
He’d lived in Astoria, Queens, and until three years ago, worked 10-12 hours a day at his Manhattan store, which was well known for its annual Christmas storefront display. This was a tradition that continued for over 20 years.
Koniuk also held Christmas parties every year for the neighborhood at the store, complete with horse-drawn hayrides around the block and live music. He and his employees would dress up as elves.
But unlike most stores that use holiday events to try to get customers inside for sales, Koniuk knew not to bother. In fact, it was only because winter was so slow business-wise that he got the idea (and the time) to focus on putting together his Christmas display, which included dozens of moving Santa models and other holiday-themed characters.
“After Christmas, I’ll think about selling,” he once said.
When Koniuk retired in September, 2012, and closed the store, it was due to health-related reasons. Recently, said Glenn, his father’s kidney failed and two tumors appeared. He didn’t want to get into details but said, “They couldn’t really do anything for him.” Cancer had been a part of Koniuk’s life since was a child and he lost an eye to the disease.
Glenn, who’s continued to run The Frenchmen out of the company’s Brooklyn warehouse, said he wanted the Stuyvesant Town community to be aware of his father’s passing, since Glenn is often asked by customers how William is doing.
“He has a lot of friends there,” said Glenn.
The Frenchmen store, which was located between 19th and 20th Street for most of its existence, was actually the second location. Originally it was a block south, but moved after 20 years. Additionally, when the business first opened in 1962 it was called The Frenchmen TV Inc. and specialized in televisions and radios. Focusing on air conditioners would come later since at the time they were still too new and expensive for many people.
But the name of the store had nothing to do with Koniuk’s heritage; he was Ukrainian. However, his business partner at the time, Rene Lesebure, was French. They’d settled on the name over dinner at Koniuk’s sister’s Stuyvesant Town apartment, when she said, “You’re French” to Lesebure, and, “You’re both men,” Glenn once told T&V. “And that’s how the decision was made.”
Lesebure left the business after about a decade to retire.
Koniuk, who served as a Marine during World War II, is survived by his four children, Glenn, Brian, Karen and Daren and their mother Mae-Marie. He also had six grandchildren.
There are currently no plans for the former Frenchmen’s storefront space, which the Koniuk family owns and which was recently renovated. During the holiday season, Glenn had said he might lease it, but is in no rush to do so.