Sweat it out: a Russian bathhouse booms as temperatures drop

Businessman Dmitry Shapiro says there’s something to gain from being in the middle of a polar-vortex.

“Winter has always been our busiest season,” Shapiro said in an email. “A cold winter means we’re extra busy.”

It’s another icy night in the city and at the Russian and Turkish Baths at 268 E. 10th St. – which Shapiro runs with his brother Jack 181 days out of the year– a subway car’s worth of half-naked New Yorkers undress and commune.

On this particular night, the change rooms are full of people eager to escape the weather.  Young and old bodies are jammed up next to each other in a no-frills black locker room.

“I try to come here whenever I can,” says Martha McGee, a massage therapist and life-long New Yorker who has been visiting the baths since the 1980s. “This winter has been particularly cold and my health isn’t great. Once I get inside, I feel amazing.

Founded in 1892, the baths have long been a staple of New York City winters for shivering locals and tourists.

Originally the stomping grounds of Russian and Jewish immigrants, the bathhouse – along with the surrounding neighborhood– has evolved over the years. It now draws customers from walks of life as diverse as corporate executive to waitress.

“It used to be mostly Russian and Jewish immigrants,” said David Pizarro, a former Los Angeleno,  who has been working at the bathhouse for the past four years. “Now, you can see, it’s just about everyone.”

While Pizarro says business isn’t terrible in the summers, he admits numbers soar when temperatures drop below zero. On a typical winter Saturday, he says the bathhouse sees anywhere between 500 and 600 customers.

“For a lot of people, it’s a social thing,” he said. “Especially when the weather is cold.”

Lily Azrielant, a 26–year-old waitress who first began coming to the bathhouses on the advice of a college professor four years ago, says that, for her, visiting the bathhouses has become just as much about meeting people as it is about escaping the bitter cold.

“It’s become more of a social thing,” she said over the phone. “I go with my friend Alex a lot. People are friendly. It’s a unique vibe.”

Azrielant says she visits the bathhouse two or three times a month and regularly makes new social connections.

According to Shapiro, the bathhouse’s increasingly social atmosphere may be contributing to its growing success. He says he’s seen his business grow steadily in the past few years “mostly through name recognition.”

“Also, people are discovering the benefits of saunas and steam rooms,” he said.

But according to Pizarro, nothing is better at drawing people into the steam than a streak of skin-numbing temperatures.

“I hate the cold, but it’s good for business,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

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