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Independent Brownstone Brooklyn Stores Aren't Afraid of J.Crew

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Image via <a href="">The Real Deal</a>
Image via The Real Deal

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Traditional "Brownstone Brooklyn" neighborhoods like Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Cobble Hill have been seeing a rapid change in their retail landscape. Specifically, there are less small businesses springing up and more national chains coming in their place.

This year alone has seen the addition of Lululemon on Smith Street and Splendid on Court Street. There was also the announcement that J. Crew is moving to the space that grocer Pacific Green currently occupies. And Intermix, the high-end boutique chain that's owned by The Gap, opens on Smith Street next Monday. And that's not to mention the Urban Outfitters, Barneys New York, and Sephora that have come in recently.

Have we reached a tipping point where the neighborhood is losing its quirky charm? Might independent retailers become a relic of the past? We spoke to a few of the independent retailers in the area who told us, point blank, they're not afraid of being replaced by J.Crew.

Victoria Hagman, a commercial and residential real estate agent with Realty Collective, explains where it all began: "It started with CVS and Duane Reade coming in. Then a couple years ago, we got American Apparel. And Lucky came in. And Chipotle. And now we have Splendid on Court Street."

"It's kind of crazy that J. Crew's coming too, and it's kicking out a really popular mom and pop that's been here," she adds. "People are really upset about it, and they feel the businesses that they need and that they've been patrons of, to no fault of the businesses, are leaving—or they're being forced to leave."

Local retailers have certainly taken notice of these changes. Mike Kuhle, the owner of menswear shop Epaulet, has been on Smith Street since 2008. He notes, "The neighborhood has expanded so much in the past few years in every way—not just retail."

Article&. Photo by William Chan

Lara Fieldbinder, the owner of Article& in Cobble Hill, almost had to close up shop last summer, due in part to rising rents. Among other changes, she made the decision to change the store's name from Dear Fieldbinder to Article& and revamp her online business. In the end—and to the delight of her customers—she was able to stay. "It seems to me, with so many companies and shops now online, the big chains are attempting to get closer to the customer," she says.

"We feel it's important for us, now more than ever, to be close to our customer, to know her needs," emphasized Fieldbinder. "Being a small company, it can sometimes be easier for us to make changes and adapt quickly." She adds, "It can be a struggle for us to keep up, as were are a small team, but we have always been up for the challenge."

According to Hagman, who was a Cobble Hill resident for seven years before moving to Red Hook, the neighborhood's customer has been changing too. "There's been a lot of movement with who actually lives in these neighborhoods. It's a lot different than ten years ago, just like how it's happened in Williamsburg."

"The rents are higher, so in order to afford them, you have people that have to make a higher income," said Frances Kopito, a real estate agent with Brooklyn Real who has worked in the neighborhood for more than two decades. "And as a result of that, you're getting more high-end stores that are there to accommodate them."

"They can open because there's a demand, and I think that's unfortunate that there's a demand for that 'mass-produced-in-other-countries' product because of the price point," says Gaia DiLoreto, the owner By Brooklyn, a boutique that opened in 2011 and only sells locally-made (and local as in Brooklyn) goods.

Hagman says that because of this demand, commercial real estate prices have gone "through the roof." "It's very disappointing—it's really a lot harder for smaller mom-and-pop businesses to compete with banks and these bigger chains that can afford a lot more rent."

DiLoreto adds, "These big national chains, even if they can't survive in the first year or two on revenues generated out of that store, they can afford to take that hit. Small business like myself can't do that."

The deep-pocketed prospective new tenants aren't limited to just big box retailers. Kopito explains that everyone from high-end hair salons to contemporary clothing stores have been trying to move in over the past couple of years.

Epaulet. Photo by Brian Harkin

However, the store owners we spoke with are ready to compete with the chains. "Nearly everything at Epaulet is designed by us and exclusive to the store, so we're not directly competing with anyone else," said Kuhle. "Our customers know that we offer a superior product and a more personalized shopping experience" than they'll find at a national chain.

In some cases, having national chains that attract foot traffic could be helpful for smaller businesses, real estate agent Kopito suggested. "You have a lot of different types of stores that have opened up, and I think that it's a good thing."

Small businesses "really need to be smart about their lease negotiations," Hagman offered. "And then I think that you just need to have a good business plan. There's a lot of people here, and there's a lot of need for some of the things that small businesses are providing."

"There are so many great small businesses, like Bird, that I feel are part of living in Brooklyn," said Hagman. "You realize that these small businesses need your business, and so that if it comes to shopping at Bird or J. Crew, I'm gonna go to Bird."

DiLoreto says that she doesn't feel she needs to "do anything special" to compete with the chains. "I know what I am—this store is very unique, and there's nothing else like it anywhere in the city, much less in this part of Brooklyn."

"I feel like what I do is what I've always done, which is provide excellent customer service and an excellent quality product that my customer enjoys. Just keep doing those two things, and I'll be okay."
·National Retailers Clamoring For Their Slice Of Cobble Hill [Racked NY]
·Peek Inside Lululemon's New Smith Street Outpost [Racked NY]
·All Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens Posts [Racked NY]