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Declaration of an Independent: G. Laurie Cooper goes her own way
Publication: On the Avenue Magazine

Declaration of an Independent: G. Laurie Cooper goes her own way By Victor Wishna On some college campuses they're called "G.D.I.'s." The label stands for something close to "Gosh Darn Independents," and it's applied by those with letters on their chests to those without people who never opted into the Creek system for whatever reason, some out of apathy, some because they wanted to go their own way. After 25 years as a New York broker, G. Laurie Cooper is proud of her G.D.I, status, proud that she never opted into the system of high- end mega-firms that dominate the market. As a small independent broker (her office consists of herself and two assistants), Cooper feels she's better able to conduct her business the way she learned if by selling, selling, selling. She knows how to hawk property, she says, something she believes doesn't happen much anymore now that the current "rush" for apartments allows brokers to sit back and let buyers come to them. "Why give me the exclusive? Because I really work the property," she says. "Major companies just send it out. They co-broker it. I try to work as hard as I can, try to show it every hour I can." Indeed (here's no love lost between Cooper and the big fraternities and sororities (Douglas Elliman, Corcoran, etc.) of New York real estate, who she says are more concerned with getting exclusives then applying their expertise. "A lot of them are not really capable of matching [people] properly," she says. "The whole game of this market right now is grabbing the listing. It you have the listing, you don t even have to Know anything, an you have to do is open the door." The big brokers, of course, contend sellers should choose them because they have the resources to do much more than simply open the door. "Bedroom brokers tend to be very poorly funded and are not able to offer any of the array of marketing and other services which today's buyer has the right to expect," says Alan Rogers, chairman and CEO of Douglas Elliman, "it's no surprise that Cooper, who sells herself as hard as her properties, disagrees. She says her current perspective is shaped by her memories of a less sophisticated market she encountered as a naive young broker who had made the switch to real estate from import sales. "Twenty-five years ago, this was a handshake business," she says. "If you had a friend working at a brokerage house and she had a listing, you'd co-broker." Her secret weapon in the early days was the Sunday open house, something she says not many people were taking advantage of. In addition to Finding buyers for apartments, Cooper made a lot of contacts with people in the neighborhood who were looking to sell. In the heydays of the '8os, Cooper's "little" independent firm soon grew to a roster of 60 brokers. She could be spotted driving her clients around in a Rolls Royce with "COOPERS1" license plates. When the market went under at the end of the decade, so did a lot of smaller independents. Cooper struggled on for a bit - "We even brought in a therapist to psyche the salespeople into selling" - but eventually had to let most, and then all, other agents go. When times got really tough, she had the option to sign on with one of the big firms. "I chose to stay this way because I like the control factor, and I've been very successful." She's expanded her business beyond its base on me Upper East Side. She's sold downtown in Soho, Tribeca, and me East Village - specifically Alphabet City in the early '90s, when that name still meant something. ... something bad. For the last few months, she's even been marketing a few properties in Italy. Over the years. Cooper has also added a number of celebrities to her client list. She helped Oliver Stone find his first New York apartment. And she has a long-term working relationship with movie actor Ben Gazzara (The Thomas Crown Affair, Summer of Sam) and his wife Elke. "Her word has always been good," Gazzara says. "Laurie has a great knowledge of the market here and in Italy." It was the Gazzaras who got Cooper's Italian business started earlier this year when they asked her to sell their villa in Umbria, about 80 miles northeast of Rome. "Casa Bali" comes with its own vineyard, olive grove, guest house, and heated lap pool for $5 million, and was recently featured as the Wall Street Journal's "House of the Week." Cooper now represents other homes in the region, where Madonna just bought a house. "That certainly makes my properties more attractive," Cooper says. Her clients - famous or not - say they appreciate the personal attention they fed they won't, or didn't, get elsewhere. "I went to larger firms, and they weren't very clear on what I was looking for — I thought they listened, but they didn't," says artist Nancy Zigelbaum, for whom Cooper found a "lovely" two-bedroom on Madison. "When 1 spoke to Laurie, I felt like I was speaking to a human being." Zigelbaum says Cooper found her an apartment that wasn't even listed yet, just by choosing the right building and talking to everyone she knew there. "She said, 'Oh, you like that building? I know a lady on the third floor - she's looking to sell. I'll give her a call.'" "With Laurie, it's not just about making the deal," says Bruce Cohen, a real-estate attorney. "If I'm doing the due diligence and there's something I see that I don't like, she wants the client to know about it... which is refreshing," Refreshing is a good word for a broker who's so open with a journalist about what she loves and hates about her business. Perhaps it just comes with being independent. Over a bowl of matzo ball soup at Eli's, around the corner from her office. Cooper shares stories of past clients and colleagues: "People say I should have a sitcom going." She speaks excitedly other new ventures in Italy and chats about which neighborhoods are hot and which are not: "Downtown? Overpriced. There's nothing down there. Nothing." She even tells of the pranks that competitors from big firms have pulled to try and get listings away from her; some have made disparaging remarks to sellers, and one broker sneaked into one of her apartments, turned all the lights on, and left). And she has choice comments for the perniciously picky co-op boards that still haunt the Upper East Side (and elsewhere), which she says are made up of tenants who got in when prices were low and who are now jealous of the much richer people over whom they now sit in judgment. "They make you feel this small," she says, pinching her fingers together. "There's always some problem - the referral letters are not good enough, the addresses of the referrers are not good enough." She recalls one pair of clients who were looking to buy a co-op apartment that had already seen three prior applicants rejected. The couple wasn't married, and Cooper warned them this could be a problem with the board. So what else could they do - aside of course from finding a nice town house somewhere else? They lied - claimed they were getting married on Valentine's Day, had judges write letters to that effect, and even had a ring made. (What some people won't do to avoid a wedding.) Cooper doesn't plan to give up her independence, despite all the hazing. "It's difficult as an independent to overcome all the competition," she says, ending with a good old-fashioned hard sell: "I try to work as hard I can, every hour I can. After all these years, I know every building, every layout, every line."