A Boutique Grows in AstoriaCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | Opened in the height of COVID-19, this eco- and socially conscious gift shop is moving forward one day at a time. Published: January 26, 2021
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!
Happy Tuesday! A lot has happened since the last time I was in your inbox: America has a new president who is actually acting presidential; Bernie Sanders is now a cold-weather fashion influencer; and the horrific COVID-19 winter surge might have peaked. What is that lambent flicker? Could it be a light at the end of this tunnel?
This week’s profile features Lyn Chin of Side B, a new eco-conscious apparel and gift shop in Astoria, Queens. After quitting her office job as a retail buyer and consultant, Chin launched her own brick-and-mortar shop as a launching pad for small, eco-conscious brands from mostly women and people of color. Keep reading for how it’s going.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the concept behind Side B?
It's a lifestyle [conceived for] someone from a fashion background who is still very concerned with the environment. I am really concerned about plastic in the oceans, so I want to run this thing with minimal plastic. We have a thrift shop component, which is to try and keep clothing out of the landfill, but the bigger message is for people to shop slow. When you're buying quality, you're usually paying a fair wage to somebody. It's also a big deal to me to find that indie small batch maker who’s trying to break in. We are the first store for 11 brands or something like that. I'm not much older than anybody, but I feel like some grandma fostering all of these brands. I feel a huge responsibility to them, and that's also what my store is about. That's the reason I have a business.
How many brands do you sell right now?
What do you look for when partnering with brands?
Most are [owned by] people of color. We support eco-conscious, women-owned businesses, and people who give back. We [only] have two male-owned companies, which isn't something intentional, but I’m still pretty proud of. If you like a product, you like a product, not based on a person's cultural background or whatever, but it's nice to know that they're getting out there.
You opened this past November. How did the pandemic impact the way you set up the space?
I think because we're so paranoid about the virus and I don’t know, we were on the verge of depression ... I needed this to be a comfortable space. I wanted people to walk in and feel like the store hugged them with good smells. I couldn't cram it; it's a small space and I didn't want products splattered everywhere, we needed ample walking space. People like to come in and chat: One of the guys who walks his dog in the neighborhood, if he doesn't show up one day, I worry.
Were you expecting most of your sales to be online?
I was thinking the majority would be walking in, but if that was going to be a big rush or not, I had no clue. I was hoping not. Actually, when we first opened, I didn't turn on the lights for two days because I was still not acquainted with all my machines and stuff. I didn't put out an open sign or anything because I wasn't sure what to do if a rush of people came in.
Was there a rush?
Naturally, it was really good because it was the holidays and people were out and shopping. I don't know how much of it is due to just Astoria being a really cool, supportive place, but so many people told me they made it a point to shop local and to shop small. It was really heartwarming.
How busy have you been since the holidays?
It's what I expected. I know the ebb and flow throughout the year and what happens around elections and stuff like that. We're just now picking up for in-person. Every weekend it's a bunch of different people.
How important is ecommerce and online marketing for you?
All the digital stuff is super important, but what I gravitate toward is the in-person because it's just more fun. But I have to adapt.
You mentioned that Astoria is a particularly supportive place for small businesses; what’s your relationship like with other indie retailers in the neighborhood?
That’s definitely where social media comes in. We're always tagging each other. Not even if it's retail — if you're getting take-out from somewhere, you tag it. When I first opened, some neighborhood restaurants were tagging me, so it's [a way] to give back. A lot of my word-of-mouth [promotion] has been through Instagram.
I know it’s still early, but how are you doing from a financial perspective so far?
I don't come from money, I didn't start [Side B] with money, so it's not like I have something to compare to. And especially with the last couple of months we've had, I'm like, It can't get any worse, can it? Currently, we stress out trying to get the bills paid, then there’s a moment of relief when they're paid, and it starts all over again.
Do you feel sufficiently supported by the government to weather these times?
I don't feel like I am entitled to any of the government's support. I feel so much more for restaurants and people who have been in business for two years or longer. I'm not like moneybags over here, but I am new, and someone who's been in business for a couple months probably shouldn't take any of this money, when there are so many other businesses that need it more.
Looking ahead, how do you plan to grow or develop the shop?
I don't look at the future. I stopped last year. I bought the most expensive planner I have ever bought for 2020, and there are so many pages where I didn't write anything. All I can think of is the next day or two days.
How to help:
- Shop online or visit the store at 3612 34th Ave, #2, Astoria, NY (Open Tue-Sat 11-7, Sun 11-6; Closed Mon)
- Follow on Instagram
Until next time,