Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.Photos by William Chan
Top Hat is one of the Lower East Side's least predictable stores. The retail outlet of wholesale company Sweet Bella, it stocks gifts like hyper-accurate bird calls and packaged Finnish "snowballs" alongside hard-to-find stationery items like printed masking tape. Last week, owner Nina Allen told us all about how she came to find herself selling quirky dry goods on Broome Street. It's a story that starts halfway around the world, on an airplane in Nepal.
What made you want to own a store?
It sort of opened itself. We have a wholesale company, so we had a lot of stock on hand. We walked by the storefront one day and saw a "for rent" sign. It's a beautiful block, one of my favorites in the city. I called the number on the sign and basically rented it the next day.
We rented it in November of 2010 and opened a month later. So it's been a year and a half. It took us a while. In the beginning we only operated out of the front room, but then we opened the back room too. It wasn't fully open until November of last year.
How long were you wholesaling before that?
Eight or nine years.
How'd you get into it?
I won the lottery on an airplane in Nepal. I don't know if they still do it, but they used to do a lottery on Royal Nepal Airlines where you could win back the cost of your ticket. It was a tiny flight, like sixteen people, so the odds were good. I never wanted to win something so badly. I used the money to start my first wholesale business.
That was a previous, previous company, the first wholesale company, which had a different name and different products. Then I went to work as a buyer. I knew the market pretty well from being in it, and I thought there were more interesting things that could be brought in.
When you picture your typical customer, who do you see?
I know who our core customer is, but they we have every other counter-customer as well. Our core customer tends to be very well-traveled, knowledgeable. But I like to think the store's friendly and we get everyone.
What's your favorite item in the store right now?
There's a collection of stationery from the company Delfonics in Japan. We're actually the US distributor. We worked with them for a long time; it's an older company. It's just kind of taken off as this kind of cult stationery thing, and I'm happy that we have a very large selection of it in the store. It's very unique and strongly graphic and really well-made. They have a store in Paris, but apart from that, it's really not available outside of Japan.
We also distribute from Japan a company called Life which started in the 1940s. It's never been sold outside Japan. We started working with them this year and we have a very good selection of their stationery in their store. It's all made in tiny workshops around Tokyo. I went to see them and it was such a privilege. People were hand-stitching, and they change the glue every day because it changes so much due to the humidity.
Are you in the store every day? If not, how often do you come in?
I live nearby, so I go when the store is closed, at night and on weekends, like a mouse. I'm kind of shy. I don't like to go when it's open. We have a really nice staff, though. They're really great.
Is there a "Holy Grail" item that you haven't been able to stock, but that you'd carry if you could? If so, what is it?
Ah. Well, I found it. I bought an amazing pair of lounge shoes in Japan, and I've tracked them down, and now I'm trying to figure out how to get them here.
Let's talk about pricing. What's the thinking behind the store's general price point?
It's just a reflection of what it costs. The thing that's sort of unusual about the store is that it's all originally sourced products. I travel a lot of the year and find things. That's the whole premise of the wholesale company. While I'm out trying to find things for wholesale, there's all these other things that I find for the store.
So the products are really expensive when you include travel and time, but we don't include that in the price. We have things all over the price spectrum. You can buy a vintage pencil for $3 or a cuckoo clock for $500, but I think it all has the same vibe to it.
Time for the lightning round! Tumblr or Pinterest?
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1960s, 1970s, or 1980s?
· Quick, Before the Snow Melts! Rent a Toboggan at Top Hat [Racked NY]
· Sweet Bella [Official Site]
· All Better Know a Store Owner posts [Racked NY]