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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.Photos by Driely S
Mauri Weakley started her career in fashion as a visual merchandiser for Steven Alan and as a freelancer for a styling company, but as her interests turned toward textiles and vintage, she thought more seriously about home goods. Last December, she and fiancé Ben Heemskerk opened their own store, Collyer's Mansion, in Ditmas Park.
"People older than me always say, 'All these things you're doing in your life will come together into one thing,'" said Heemskerk. "This store has that symbiotic relationship with our lives. We love nice things, we've always shopped, and wished we had them ourselves. It all came together really nicely, and it doesn't feel like a lot of work."
Since opening this fall, work has included merchandising their tiny store space "like Tetris," with products that range from eco-wool rugs, beard brushes, handmade pillows, coffee mugs, art, and so much more. Read on to learn where all of that comes from, and why the historical significance of the store's name fits perfectly with its aesthetic.
Why did you decide to open a home goods store, given your fashion background?
Mauri: I really liked textiles and the prints and color. I became interested in home goods from there because it's something that's not wearable—it's a beautiful thing, but it's not part of a trend. And Ben and I always loved going to flea markets and finding things for our home. We had always thought about doing a store with clothing and home goods, and sort of doing a more well-rounded, bigger thing. But this space became available, and we live in the neighborhood, and it was a great opportunity.
Had you considered opening in other neighborhoods?
Mauri: I considered other neighborhoods for clothing [stores]. But we live in this neighborhood, and Ben owns a wine bar [The Castello Plan], and we're opening another restaurant. So when you live and work in the neighborhood, you're really tied into the community.
What brought you to Ditmas Park in the first place?
Mauri: I've lived all over Brooklyn—this is just the latest place that I've lived in, and I've stayed. It's a nice reprieve from the city, but you still have the accessibility. Rents here are amazing—you have these big, gorgeous, pre-war apartments and it's a nice place to live. There's trees, it's close to the park, there are these gorgeous Victorian houses, [but] you still have great coffee and good food, which is why you live in a city, too. You don't feel like you're sacrificing those New York things.
You had to do a lot of work in this space to get it up and running, right?
Mauri: We took a really small space. This used to be a tarot card reader. It was vacant for two years before we took it. It was totally dilapidated, completely run down. There was so many leaks, it was literally raining in the store.
Ben: I always found it interesting that the psychic went out of business—she should have seen the slowdown.
Mauri: There was drywall on the walls that had been punched through, so you could see the brick underneath. There were two drop ceilings—as we pulled one drop ceiling down, we found there was another one.
Ben: My father's a contractor. He's extremely supportive and really worked with us. We took away the drop ceiling and opened it all up.
So once you got this space into structural shape, what did you have in mind for the design?
Mauri: We knew we wanted to do a big wall of shelving, and Ben and his dad worked together on that. And then we got a ladder the night before we were opening, because we realized we didn't have anything to get up there! When people walk in, they think it's for sale. I would pretty much sell anything, but I can't sell that because I need it to get up and down!
What's the significance behind your store's name?
Ben: It was a brownstone [in Harlem] that the parents left to their two sons [in the 1940s], and they were hoarders. Part of their hoarding were things like 13 grand pianos, and multiple set of encyclopedias. There was a certain romance with the idea that these guys—yes, they were hoarders and insane—but they saw something that they thought was invaluable and beautiful, that they couldn't live without. They fell in love with object after object after object. So you can fill up these little apartments in New York with beautiful things, and you can have a lot of beautiful things in a really reasonable way.
Mauri: We were trying to come up with something with "mansion" [to refer to the houses in Ditmas Park]. And so we found "Collyer's Mansion," and we thought it was genius because we have a tiny store that's going to be filled with stuff, and we love New York folklore.
Ben: It's still the fire department's code word for a hoarder situation. We really love the fact that it plugs into the New York mythos. There were hundreds of people outside that house because they just wanted to see how bad it was.
Mauri: Yeah, it wasn't a reality show at that time!
What is the sensibility behind the products you offer here?
Mauri: We have the clientele that likes nice things, but they need to be realistic nice things, and it should also be within the realm of their realistic income. We're very conscious of that. We try to provide a range. And we work with a lot of small companies.
It's kind of like a wish list. I really like a lot of different things, but not everything is right for you or is even right for your space. The best thing about a store is that it doesn't have to be. You get to buy it because you love it, but then you get to pass it on to someone else, and then you get to buy something new. And I think that's really fun.
Do you have a lot of local stuff in here?
Ben: Without being a specifically "local-vore" place, we do. [We have] necklaces from a girl in Bushwick, and mugs from a girl in Greenpoint.
Mauri: It's not an intentional thing. A lot of the time, people come and shop in the store, and they're like "Oh, you would like my friend's work!" And they put you in touch that way.
And you also make some of your own items for the store, correct?
Mauri: We do all of the pillows, and we do linen tablecloths and napkins. I actually send the fabric to my family in Tennessee, and then they sew and send them back. You can go into some stores, and [pillows] are $250—in the design realm, pillows are really expensive. And then not in the design realm, they're sometimes not so nice. Since we're doing them ourselves, I can sell quality pillows at a lot lower of a price point.
Is there a limit to what you'll carry? Because it seems like you have a broad range, from ottomans to beard brushes.
Ben: I think if it's for the home, and it's practical, and a beautiful object, and reasonably priced, I don't see why not.
Mauri: I think if it fits, it fits.
Ben: I just want to make sure it's pointed out that I don't use the beard brush.
Mauri: I think it's pretty clear that you don't use the beard brush!
What kind of customer do you attract with all of your offerings?
Ben: It's a range of people. Ditmas Park is still a very diverse community, even with as much as it's changed in the last ten years.
Mauri: Not everyone is of the same generation either. We have customers who are in their 70s, and then we have customers who are 22. And to have something for both of those people is a really interesting thing to always think about.
So with all these different customers, what's the price point you want to hit?
Ben: We know that $60 for your coffee mug might be a little expensive—but you want something nice that in the morning you hold, and it's your coffee, and it's a pattern in your life.
Mauri: And we have two good options for you here. We have a $10 mug that's by a really beautiful company called Canvas, and then we have a $24 mug that is handmade by a young woman in Brooklyn. I feel like we try to have a range, always.
Like these blankets—they're amazing, and my favorite ones are $285, which is still not that crazy of a price.
Ben: It's not crazy in the world of blankets.
Mauri: But then we have a gorgeous one that's $148. For the person who really loved the [expensive] one, but it's a stretch, you can still get one made by the same company that is still gorgeous, and it's significantly less.
What are some of your favorite items in the store right now?
Mauri: I'm really crazy about these towels. They're made by Morihata, which is a Japanese company, and they're lightweight and quick-dry. I love the two-tone chambray ones.
We also have all of these amazing cleaning brushes from this company called Redecker. There's the car snow brush, and there's a leather flyswatter that I just think is the coolest thing ever.
And then the Klippan blankets. It's a company that's been around for a really long time, and they do eco-wool. They're super soft and they're magical.
Ben: Also, the pop-up books! People go crazy for the kid's books.
So what's up next for Collyer's Mansion?
Ben: We're going to build this company up to have little drones that pick up the Brooklyn-made mug (and put a beard brush inside) and we are going to fly it to Williamsburg. Just drop it on Driggs, right in from of your apartment door!
[But seriously,] it's a hard question for us at the moment, because you hear constantly about online and e-commerce. When we started our e-commerce, shopthemansion.com, and we started getting orders, I was like, "Well, this is obvious." We're on Stratford Road in Ditmas Park, and there's more people in the world than there are in Ditmas Park.
That seems like an obvious place for any store to grow. But there's just something very special about when somebody comes in and actually feels the soft wool and falls in love with it.
Mauri: There's a candle burning, and there's music on, and there's a person here who has an energy and who's talking with you and answering questions and telling you stories. There's a whole feel to it. It's tough to try and equal that online.
Are you making any plans to expand in brick and mortar?
Mauri: I've done a lot of research on all these different furniture companies, and if we had a bigger store I would carry several of them because they are all really great.
Ben: Though we love this 150 square feet—it's the greatest 150 square feet that we've been given—we've done so much work to source and find what we think are really beautiful objects that aren't so readily available, and we'd like to be able to show more. If that means a bigger space, or multiple spaces, we're not sure. But we don't stop researching, finding, falling in love with companies and furniture, and we don't want to be stifled because of our space. If that means breaking this wall and going into this garage next to us that we fixed up, and adding more sofas and couches and credenzas and dining room tables and things, then we'll do it. If it means getting a bigger space, then we'll do it.
Mauri: I merchandise this space like Tetris because it's so small, but it's amazing what you can fit in here. The fact that we keep going and we keep adding more and more and more, it's actually pretty amazing. But at some point, I think it will have to grow. It will have to be in a big space.
Ben: Just like someday, Mauri and I will actually have to get married [laughs]. Because we cannot continue calling each other husband and wife without actually being married. People are going to start catching on!
Okay, time for our lightning round: 8 a.m. or 8 p.m.?
Beer or wine?
Whiskey or tequila?
Beach or mountains?
Ben: Mountains, a hundred percent.
Cats or dogs?
Ben: Eh, I don't like either of them.
Mauri: He doesn't like animals. I've been trying to get a dog for years!
Favorite vacation destinations?
Mauri: I would say Paris and Palm Springs.
Ben: New Orleans and Haarlem, Holland. It's where my family's from. It's a fifteen-minute train ride from Amsterdam.
Favorite neighborhood lunchtime spot?
Both: Mimi's Hummus.
Favorite happy hour spot?
Ben: The Castello Plan! [To Mauri] You have to say that!
Mauri: I never go to happy hour because I'm still working. But I put the "Back in 5" sign up and go over there and take a half-bottle of wine, and then I take it back and finish my night.
Rap or country?
Mauri: Country—I'm from Tennessee.
Ben: Sometime I get affected by the rhythm of the rap.
Scandal or Homeland?
Ben: What does that mean?
Mauri: Oh, neither—The Good Wife! That's the only show we watch together.
Ben: Sunday Night Football. We have this argument that I can only watch the second half, because the first half is committed to The Good Wife, and then at 10 o'clock I switch over.
That's a good compromise.
Ben: Yeah, it took us years.
Update: A previous version of this post misquoted that the Collyer brothers lived on the Upper East Side, when it was actually Harlem.
Collyer's Mansion [Official Site]
All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]