Keeping the Kids AlrightCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In Park Slope, a one-stop shop for toys and kid’s haircuts keeps it together for the community. Published: December 21, 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. Thanks for reading!
This is my last dispatch of 2021. When I started reporting on this beat back in March 2020, I imagined I’d run it for a month or two, tops. Only a couple weeks ago, I thought to myself, Maybe it’s about time to wrap up. Then, Omicron.
I’m scared and tired and, frankly, angry — as I’m sure many of you are, too. I was excited to end the year on a relatively joyful note, and that feels almost impossible now. But not entirely. My reserves of hope and positivity are continuously fed by this column, which serves as a weekly reminder of our innate, sometimes confoundingly resolute, resilience; our endless capacity for invention and reinvention; our unconditional generosity, even among strangers; and our courage to reimagine the status quo. I cherish my conversations with each small business owner, and am so grateful to this community for continuing to read and share them. Take care of yourself, get boosted, get tested, stay safe. (And try to have some fun in there, too!)
To cap off this year’s interviews, I’m featuring Lulu’s Cuts and Toys, a toy shop and kid’s hair salon in Park Slope that’s been around since 2001. Owner Brigitte Prat came up with the two-pronged concept after moving to the neighborhood and struggling to find an inspiring toy shop and kid-friendly haircuts for her daughter, Lulu, who was 6 years old at the time. Over two decades later, the shop is still alive and thriving — and thanks to Lulu’s help over the pandemic, now exists online, too. Keep reading for my conversation with Brigitte.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What motivated you to open the store?
I have worked retail for 35, 40 years; it’s basically all I know. [Before Lulu’s Cuts and Toys,] I worked as a buyer and manager in Soho fashion boutiques. In 1998, when my daughter and I moved to Park Slope, there wasn't anything that was wowing me as far as toy stores. There was one main store with basic toys that were not interesting to me. There was also nowhere to get a child's haircut that was fun and creative ... So, it was really Lulu that put the thought in my head.
I thought about it for three years, writing ideas down and looking at spaces from a distance. I had a great job with a nice salary and health benefits, and as a single parent with no other help — no child support, no help from parents, nothing — I could not walk away from that. But the desire to do it got stronger and stronger, and then I had a little issue at my job, and I left. I had looked at a space a week or two before, so I called that landlord and said, "I'm taking it," just like that. I opened it without investors or borrowing money from anyone; I just did it with credit cards. Back then, you could do that kind of stuff. I opened in 2001, exactly one month before 9/11. That was really scary and stressful.
How has the space evolved over the years?
I was in this teeny-weeny space for about four years and had hit my limit as far as gross sales because it was so small. After looking for a bigger space, I bought a mixed-use building, which is where I’m at now. It was on a pretty rough corner at the time, but it was a much bigger space and I was going to own it and not have to be at the mercy of a landlord. I was biting my fingernails, but I took the plunge. We opened [the second location] in 2005. It had two apartments for quite a bit ... In 2012, I was financially able to occupy the whole building. I live in a duplex upstairs.
Has your original concept changed?
It's always been the same: specialty toys and hair cutting. I don't sell the typical Barbie that you’d find at Target; I get specialty Barbies, like an Ella Fitzgerald Barbie and a David Bowie Barbie. I'm a go-to place for birthday gifts, so I keep the bulk of my store in the $20 to $30 range because that's what people spend for a birthday gift. Then I have a ton of $5 to $15 items for haircut treats. The two [sides of the business] work together.
What did the March 2020 shutdown look like for you?
We closed down, but I still had bills. I still had to eat. I still had a child in college. The first day we were closed, Lulu and I were sitting around and she was like, "Mom, Shopify is offering three months for free to small businesses during the pandemic." I didn’t have a website [back then]. Before I could say anything, I had an account. By two weeks, I had a website. It was an intense process.
Did Lulu help you build the website?
She didn’t help me; she did it. Lulu loves a challenge.
That's amazing. What happened once you had the website up and running?
I was the only one allowed to be in the store … and they actually checked up on me.
Really? I haven’t heard that before.
Just for some fresh air, I had left my door open, and someone said that I was open for business ... Even though there was a gate in front of my door with a sign that said, “Sorry, no entry.” That was really scary. I want to do everything right: I'm the person who likes to dot their I's and cross their T's. I was like, "Did I do anything wrong? I'm here alone. I've got the gate. As you can see, you can't enter." And they were like, "Well, it looks like you're open." It was a sanitation guy [who came to check]; he didn't even know the rules. I started crying. He didn't give me a violation, but he almost did. Who knows who called the man. That was two months in or something.
Yikes. How long were you closed for in-store shopping?
How did you make the decision to reopen, and what did that look like?
I was scared. It was very stressful trying to [fulfill] all the protocols from the state. It was a little confusing. We were allowed to open on a Monday, but I didn't open until Wednesday because I was teetering back and forth. My and my staff's safety was number one. Keeping up with what they were asking me to do at a toy store — having to wipe down everything someone touches — seemed impossible. I've got, I don't know, 30,000 SKUs? My stress level was panicky high. People were calling me to get their child's hair cut like, "Do you do this? Do you do that? Do you clean this?" We were doing everything, but I was still scared, like, "Am I doing enough?"
How did reopening feel?
Our regular customers were almost in tears, they were so happy to be back in the store. We need contact; we need to speak to and see people. Especially for New Yorkers, we live in a stressful city, and we need that outlet. It was really nice to create normalcy for kids again. Some kids were pretty resilient, but you could tell that some were struggling. We all take news, whether it's good or bad, differently. One time, a young kid, maybe 3 or 4 years old, was getting his hair cut and the stylist removed his mask from one side to trim around his ear, and all of a sudden we heard him quietly whimpering. She didn't take the mask off; she just took the side off. We were like, "What happened?" He was afraid that she was taking his mask off. That was super intense.
It must be draining to navigate moments like that every day.
Yeah, for sure. I have too many people come in unmasked. People say, "But I'm vaccinated." I say, "Congratulations, but the kids aren't." Working in customer service, you see a lot of entitled people. You'd think the pandemic would have made them softer or something, but no.
How is business right now?
It's been a good, solid 18 months. We have launched holiday and birthday wishlists on our website, which I'm promoting as much as I can. We're shipping a lot; this week, I had a customer purchase some Christmas gifts for her grandkids out of state. But, although my [sales] goal for November was met, my hours are doubled, because I'm running the store during the day and placing shipment orders early in the morning and late at night. I do have a staff, but since COVID, it’s very slim. Before, I had people running the store where I could take a week off or go on vacation. But since COVID, I've been working seven days a week. It's not worth it for me to bring someone new in right now, because I’ll lose 20 hours a week training [them], which I can't afford.
Has COVID changed the atmosphere in the store?
It is definitely not packed like it used to be, especially on the weekends. Pre-COVID, Saturday and Sunday were my bread and butter — [sales were] almost four times what I made Monday through Friday. But since we reopened, I've noticed that my weekday numbers have doubled and my weekend numbers have halved. It's more spread out now because parents are working from home and kids are doing Zoom classes. I've had many people on a Zoom call in the store. They bring their kids in for a haircut on their lunch break.
What has running a business throughout this crisis taught you about yourself?
I have to say, I'm pretty impressed with myself for keeping the shop alive through this pandemic. I’ve always known this, but it confirmed that I am a hustler and a problem solver. I was constantly thinking outside of the box. A month into [the pandemic], when everybody was asking for activity books and art supplies, I was like, "The kids need indoor physical activity." I started buying trampolines and hula hoops and jump ropes and all these things that you can do inside the house. I love Easter, and when Easter came, I went to Target and bought every basket they had and filled them with grass and chocolates and toys. I made over 100 baskets, and I asked for the kids’ likes to customize each one. I also incorporated my favorite coffee place, Blue Sky, that makes delicious muffins; for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I built kits with a puzzle and a half dozen muffins and coffee and delivered it to people’s houses. After Lulu and I would finish deliveries, we’d give it forward by going to our favorite restaurants and sitting outside, trying to spread love in our community by sharing whatever we were able to make.
How to help:
- Visit the storefront at 48 5th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn (Open Wednesday - Monday from 10am - 6pm; closed Tuesday)
- Book a haircut
- Shop online
- Follow on IG