Launching One Business While Closing AnotherCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | A Brooklyn-based entrepreneur makes tough calls to stay afloat. Published: December 01, 2020
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!
I hope you had a lovely and restful long weekend, whether or not you celebrated Thanksgiving. My partner and I made dinner with a vegan friend, and to my shock and amazement, stuffing without butter isn’t terrible?! 2020 is full of surprises.
This week, I’m featuring Honey Moon, a Brooklyn-based entrepreneur and expert on all things vintage. Since settling in New York in 2006, she’s opened three small businesses: 1 of a Find, a vintage clothing boutique; 1 of a Find Home, a vintage homewares shop; and most recently, Brooklyn High Low, a tea room inspired by the English traditions of high and low tea. To keep the tea room alive when indoor dining was banned in New York, Honey Moon made the tough call to fold her clothing shop and consolidate all retail into one location. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What led you to vintage?
I've been doing vintage since I was little. I grew up around it. My mom used to “schlep,” that's what they called it back then. She'd buy and sell stuff to whatever antique dealers would buy them. My dream was to be a designer, but when I worked in a couple of design houses, I realized I was never going to have the patience to sew. And I liked older things more than new things. I always found myself talking to designers about how they would turn old silhouettes into modern versions. So I finally decided that vintage was what I wanted to do. And while I was never going to be a millionaire doing it, I liked it. I've always taught my kids, "Do what you love and the rest will fall into place." I opened my first store in Park Slope in 2007, a teeny tiny [vintage clothing] boutique called One of a Find. And then I got a bigger space over here on Vanderbilt Avenue in 2010. That's when I made Vanderbilt my home. And then I flipped homes for a couple years because I was like, "I'm going to make old homes beautiful." While doing that, I came across so many beautiful vintage homewares and really cool things that I couldn't fit in my house, so I decided to open the vintage home store.
When did you get the idea for the tea room?
It's always been on my bucket list. I found the space and I said to the landlord, “If you want to rent this space, you know where to find me." That was two years ago. Then last December, he caught me shutting the store one day and was like, "Hey, I'm looking for [someone to fill the] space. What do you think?" It was a decision I had to make quickly. So I made it. Then unbeknownst to everybody, the world was put on hold. We were originally going to open on Mother's Day, and then when we finished our build-out in March, I was like, "I don't think we're opening in May.” It got really nerve-wracking when I was paying rent and wasn't getting any money. When you're a small business, you are typically surviving month to month. I was turned down for one of the emergency loans, and it was an awakening, like, "Do I really want to go into debt to do this?" I love it, but I also have four kids and college is on the horizon. I was like, "I'm going to do this as much as I can without going into debt."
How are you managing that?
I had to shut down the clothing store in order to keep the tea room. In an era of sweatpants and Netflix bingeing, people aren't looking for vintage clothing. I felt terrible because I had an amazing landlord who was working with me and trying to get me to keep the space, because I'd been there for 10 years. But everything was so uncertain, I didn't know if I was going to be able to open back up. The stress that it was giving me was too much. It tears me up every time I walk by and he doesn't have a tenant, because I know it's probably difficult to get tenants now. But it seems like there's a vaccine on the horizon ... Hopefully after this winter, we can start to rebuild and he can find a new [tenant].
What did you do with the homewares store?
I converted the homewares store into an all-around vintage store [with clothing]. I went into the [clothing] store by myself with a bunch of bags and boxes and picked out the stuff I wanted to move over to the home store. It took about a week. I had to rip it off like a band-aid; there was no hemming and hawing. I was like, "This is a path to survival.” And that was it. And then I kind of had a breakdown. I went down to Florida for a month with my kids and my family. A lot of the time when I go to Florida I do a lot of buying at estate sales, but there were no estate sales. I was jumping from the frying pan into the fire because the numbers there were worse [than in New York]. So we just hid out in the house we were in.
What happened when you returned to Brooklyn?
When I came back from Florida, I was rested. I was like, "I'm going to have the [home goods] store, and then hopefully the tea room can happen." We opened up [the tea room] the minute Cuomo said we could do indoor dining at 25 percent capacity. It's very similar to the feeling you get when you are in my store, but now you get to sit down in a tea room and enjoy that vibe for anywhere from 75 to 90 minutes while enjoying delicious food. I've had people at the tea room tell me, "This is the first time I've been able to do something that warrants putting on real clothes," which is nice for me to hear because I get to benefit from both of [the businesses]. So that's where we are right now: we have the two locations and hopefully they'll support each other. It was the best idea I could come up with.
How has the reception been to the tea room?
Great. Knock on wood. Throughout the time I’ve been in business, I’ve employed quite a few people… I've built this huge, strong oak tree of people who have come to me on their way to bigger and better things. So this lovely young girl who worked for me is now one of the editors at Time Out, and she came in with her mom and they had a wonderful tea service and it was really sweet. It was the exact thing I want the tea room to be about, which is a mix of generations having a good time. She wrote a nice piece [about her experience] that went on [Time Out’s] Instagram stories, and I started to get bookings. I've been training myself to stay on Instagram and keep people engaged.
Who makes up your team?
I have a business partner, James Sato, who is one of the owners at Chuko, a really successful restaurant on the block. I met him at a party and he had mentioned he wanted to do biscuits. And so in the back of my head, I was like, "Well, biscuits and scones are very similar... Let me see if I can rope him into helping me out." So he's [managing] the restaurant experience and back of house. And then the front of the house has been me, my daughter, and a family friend who is an actress and a server. For the vintage store, there’s a lovely young lady who is taking a break from school because of what's going on with colleges, and then I have one of my friends from middle school helping out. We're always accepting resumes, always looking for new people who have the same appreciation for old stuff and are looking to do something fun in Brooklyn.
Have you sold any vintage online?
It’s hard to do e-commerce with vintage clothing because there's no standard with sizing and most people want to try it on. But we sold some jewelry [online], and in the beginning of the pandemic, I loved going in the store and picking up plants and driving them to people's homes. It didn't keep us alive, but it kept the spirit going.
You mentioned you got rejected from a loan. Did you end up getting any emergency relief?
I got a very small PPP loan, but at the time you could only use a small percentage for rent. And in New York, rent is usually the largest expense. I was able to use it to pay my staff a small severance and be like, This is what I got, I'm sorry. But it really didn't do much. And there's still nothing out there. I have stopped looking for free money. I don’t feel like it’s going to get me anywhere. It would be nice to have the money in the bank, but I’m working with my landlords. I even showed them the denial letters. I was like, “I tried.” The majority of landlords on Vanderbilt have been here for a long time and they've watched this block go up and down. And I have been lucky enough to have great landlords. There was a time when I wasn't going to do the tea room, when there was no actual guidance on when we would be able to open. But I stuck it out and I worked with the landlord and he was really sweet. And I'm here today as proof that resilience and realistic optimism pay out.
You’ve been on Vanderbilt for a decade — I imagine you’re pretty clued in to the local small business community. How is morale at this point?
Everyone's really awake. They're paying attention, trying to figure things out day by day. People don't bow out in this town very quickly; they put up a fight. And a lot of small business owners are parents. They're people who are trying to do something on their own so they don't have bosses, so that they can have the freedom of being with their families. I have four kids, two [of whom] are self-sustaining because they're in high school or college, but I have a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old. And as of yesterday, the city shut down schools [editorial note: I spoke with Honey Moon on 11/19]. So this morning, I was supposed to be in the tea room setting up and instead, I was at home setting them up on remote learning and sitting through two hours of classes so that my husband could do his work. And then he [took over] watching them so I could come and do this. It's crazy.
What's your focus for the foreseeable future?
The tea room. I don't think there's anything else I can do with vintage: I've done the clothing, I've done the home. And then my kids. I'm not doing any more projects for a while. This one took it out of me.
How to help:
- Follow 1 of a Find and Brooklyn High Low
- For New Yorkers: Visit 1 of a Find and/or reserve a tea service at Brooklyn High Low
Until next time,