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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.
Prospect Heights is known for its brownstones, not its shopping scene. So when Magdalena Jaworska opened her shop O.N.A. on Vanderbilt Avenue this past spring, locals were psyched. Magda, who spent years working at Otte, filled the tin-ceilinged space with a mix of cute, affordable basics from Brooklyn designers and better-known brands like BB Dakota and Dolce Vita. Then, she set about meeting the neighbors. Below, she talks about her past (she was a biotechnology student), her future (e-commerce!), and the difference between Prospect Heights and Greenpoint, where she grew up.
Did you always want a store?
No, I actually never thought that I wanted to own my own store. I worked at Otte for a really long time—probably almost ten years. I started working at the Williamsburg store, and then when she opened the West Village I was working there. Then I did sales, merchandising, I assisted her with buying, and then I became like a general manager and took care of all the stores.
And then, while I was doing that i was going to school and I was getting a degree in something completely different.
What was it?
I have a degree in biotechnology. I always thought that my path would be in science, going to medical school or something like that. While I was working at Otte, I realized, I have this degree, maybe I should do something with it. So I left and I started working in a development biology lab at Cornell, and at that point I realized that I'd made a mistake. It was not for me at all. You're very isolated. You have to be very self-disciplined. Everybody's pretty much on their own, and I just didn't like the job.
Since I had all that experience working on a boutique for so long, I thought it would be a great idea to own something on my own. So here I am.
How's it going so far?
It's really good. The customers are great, super down-to-earth and really nice, and everybody's been very welcoming of the store because there really isn't anything like this around here.
Can you tell me a bit about why you chose this neighborhood?
I actually did not look at this neighborhood at all. I was looking in East Willamsburg, Bushwick, where I live, Greenpoint, and then Fort Greene, and this was my last stop. I came across the space and just fell in love with it.
Did you do much to alter it before you moved in?
No, I loved it because we didn't have to do a lot of build-out. Even the color scheme was the same. We just took it and went with it and I think it worked pretty well. Also the backyard space—we're going to incorporate it into the space next summer, maybe do events or just hang out back there. For Fashion's Night Out we had it open, and we just had movies and a barbecue in the back, and people came out.
Do you find that your shoppers are mostly people who live in the neighborhood, or is there a wider range?
Mostly people that live in the neighborhood. There are a lot of people from Fort Greene, from Clinton Hill, and from Prospect Heights, obviously, and then we get tourists that go to the park and the Brooklyn Museum and just wander in.
Do you think the Barclays Center is going to make a difference to your foot traffic?
So far, it's only been open a week and it hasn't really made a difference, but we'll see.
It'll be interesting to see how this neighborhood develops. This street is such a strip, but it's all restaurants!
Yeah. For a long time, Vanderbilt was the only restaurant, and now small things are starting to happen. Also, going towards Crown Heights, Washington Avenue is changing a lot. There are a lot of cool coffee shops and bars. But no other shopping. A lot of people come in here asking for men's, but I'm not comfortable going into that market. It's not something I have experience in.
Are all the businesses on the block friendly?
Yeah, very welcoming. They say the store changes the neighborhood and gives it a nicer vibe.
When you're buying for the store, who do you picture as your customer? What's her style?
My style! It's more casual than dressy, for someone who is my age or older. I try to keep the price point down because a lot of people around here are very price conscious. I try to find items that are different but also affordable. That was my goal: to have items that are hard-to-find, but you can still afford them.
You also have some big name brands, like Dolce Vita.
Yeah, I try to look for designers that a lot of people don't carry, but Dolce Vita is so well-priced and and the styles are great. Especially for summer, I love their shoes. And they're so comfortable.
What do you have in store right now that you're excited about from a designer our readers might not have heard of?
Kai'aakman, they're a Korean brand. Their varsity jacket with the leather sleeves—I love that piece. It's a great jacket. It's an investment—I think it's the most expensive thing in the store—but it's a piece that I would like to have myself.
How much is it?
Like $358, I think.
Is there anything that you want to carry that's a Holy Grail item that you just haven't found yet?
I haven't found quality leather bags at a good price point. It's very hard to find. Baggu makes great bags, but they only make a few styles.
And along those lines, do you have big plans for spring?
I think it's going to be pretty much the same. I bought more designer items, like Maison Scotch. I'm really excited about that brand; they're super cute and a really good price point as well. But I think the next stop is a website. It's a lot of work! And I don't have any experience in designing or programming a website. That's something that I have to assemble a team for. And I have to be very specific about what I want.
Is it just you here? Do you have any sales associates?
It's mostly just me. I do all the buying. I'm here pretty much four days a week. I have someone who is helping me with sales. I just wasn't able to do it all. But that's what happens—when you have your own business, you're always working, and you're always thinking about what you can do better, how you can improve.
Where did the name come from?
The name "Ona" without the dots means "she" in Polish, and I was born in Poland. There was this really cool rock band there when I was growing up called O.N.A., and I borrowed the dots from them.
When did you move to America?
I was a teenager; I was 14. I came straight to New York, so I pretty much grew up in Greenpoint.
Is is weird to go back now that it's changed?
It is! I feel like I'm going to a different country when I go there. The junior high school I went to was right across from McCarren Park. That neighborhood was so different back then.
Do you think that kind of change is going to happen around here?
I don't think it's going to be all the same scale. Williamsburg has so many condos; you feel like you're in Miami. I remember in Williamsburg there was the one cafe, the L Cafe, and that was the one place we would hang out as teenagers. Greenpoint has also changed a lot, but I feel like Greenpoint's changed in a good way. Williamsburg, I don't know how I feel about it.
So we always do this lightning round at the end. Ready? 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s?
1980s. I was born in the 80s!
Mountains vs beach?
Beach, definitely, hands down.
Uptown vs downtown.
Jay-Z vs Kanye?
It has to be Jay-Z!
· The Team Behind Otte Has Some Advice for Young Designers [Racked NY]
· All Better Know a Store Owner posts [Racked NY]
· O.N.A. [Official Site]