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How Hurricane Sandy Inspired Erica Weiner to Open in Brooklyn

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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.

Photo by William Chan

Erica Weiner began her jewelry design career at her kitchen table. Now, she has two stores under her belt, including the original Nolita location that's been open for a little over two years, and a brand new spot in Boerum Hill. Recently, she introduced a higher-end, vintage-inspired line to her collections, and soon, will open a third store out west. We spoke with Erica about what prompted her to settle in another borough, how it feels to have your very own cult following, and what's in the works for the 1909 pieces.

When did you know that you wanted to open a second store?

Erica: Almost two years ago. My business partner lives in Williamsburg, and I had spent a lot of time in Williamsburg over the past ten years, and I knew that the streets are jammed with people who want good fashion. I started the business really rolling at the early years of Artist & Fleas in Williamsburg, so really that was the only place we were looking. We almost got a place on N. 6th between Bedford and Berry, but it turned out to be sort of a sham landlord zoning problem. We wasted about seven months that way. And then we almost secured a spot on Metropolitan. Then we almost got a place on Wythe, and two years passed and by then Williamsburg had blown up. I still love Williamsburg, but it's kind of like Disneyland. 

You probably don't want to be on N. 6th and Bedford everyday now.

Erica: Oh god. I don't want to be in Williamsburg proper at all. And it was getting ridiculous, the things you had to do to get a space. The rents are crazy. So while this was happening we were still half-heartedly looking. And I was thinking, why don't we just open on the West Coast? Like, why don't we open in Portland? Because it was looking like Williamsburg wasn't going to happen. 

The night of Hurricane Sandy, I got evacuated from my house in Red Hook. I was staying at my business partner's house with my husband and my dog. I was watching TV and saw on the news that my neighborhood was flooded. Like, I could see my street underwater. It felt like the most destructive thing and there was nothing I could do about it so I did what I normally do when extreme terror or bad luck strikes: I just started working. I was looking on Craigslist, and I saw that this place [on Atlantic Avenue] was open. It had just been posted that day. 

Photo by Michelle McLaughlin/Courtesy of Erica Weiner

I knew exactly where it was because I knew Christina from Mafalda. I was like, "Oh my God, Mafalda is closing?" I love all of these historic buildings, and I tend to think that Steven Alan has a sixth sense about neighborhoods. I didn't know Boerum Hill that well, but since I live in Red Hook this is sort of my downtown. I've spent a lot of Saturdays here—you know, you park at the MuniMeter, walk up and down, go to Mile End, go to Steven Alan, go to Hollander & Lexer, go to Cloak & Dagger, whatever the hell you go to here. I felt like the price was right, and I knew we weren't going to have to build anything.

But I also just had a feeling. I knew. I was born in Park Slope, my parents had bought all of the furniture for our house at Horseman Antiques across the street. So this street was already in my blood. My partner was like, "I don't know anything about Atlantic Avenue. What happened to Williamsburg? Greenpoint?" And I was like, let's try it. Because at that point we had already planned?I guess this isn't top secret. We're planning to open in the Pacific Northwest or the West Coast soon. But we knew we needed something in Brooklyn.

I think you made the right decision.

Erica: My business partner and I started this eight years ago, and Williamsburg was a great place for us. Everyone was our age, early 20s, had really crappy jobs, and had like $30 to spend on something. And it's still sort of young there and we're not as young and trendy and on-trend and cool as we used to be. I was like, I don't think we can keep up with that shit. Beautiful Dreamers has something great going on, Mociun is there. It's saturated. I think what I want to do is go to where people are a little older and have more money to spend on the nice estate pieces we're starting to do. 

Photo by Michelle McLaughlin/Courtesy of Erica Weiner

You had made a comment the last time we spoke that you and your business partner were getting older, and growing out of doing the costume jewelry that you had started doing for people your age. Do you think your customer is growing up with you, as you move into selling finer pieces?

Erica: I hope so, because it's all that I know—what I like. I do not know how to do trend forecasting or any of that stuff. I've been trying to add things to our collection line because I know that you need to keep feeding the beast and making new stuff, but—I don't know how great of an idea this is to say to the public—it's hard for me to get excited about it now because I'm so excited about this estate jewelry and a few diamonds. We're doing a second release in May. It'll be totally new stuff, we're doubling the size. 

Have you also branched out where you source your antique materials?

Erica: Well 1909 is easy because we make it, so it's almost easier to design that then it is to find these limited-edition components for the collection pieces. Or to find estate jewelry, like one perfect piece at a time all over the world. It's more high-fashion. You do it, you make your sample, and you can reproduce it as it sells. And at this point, with two stores full of antiques, we have so much good material to develop 1909. 

We're doing these really great earrings with turquoise, they're based on these Victorian Earrings but they look kind of modern. I love them. We're also doing things with rough sapphires and rubies. We always joke that this is our vanity line. We had to spend so much money that came from these stores and web sales. Our money making collection allows us to experiment with these crazy-ass pieces. 

Photo by Michelle McLaughlin/Courtesy of Erica Weiner

The other great thing about estate jewelry is that we get to do the other thing we love most, which is travel all over and stay in fancy hotels and see our friends who live all over. My business partner and I are really old friends at this point—we're kind of married, pretty much. And we travel well. We like spending four hours at dinner, really researching where we want to go to dinner in Paris and then getting tanked and hysterically laughing. And as long as I can fund that, that's great. 

When you're referenced, you're often described as an "established" jewelry designer. Do you personally feel that way, especially now that you have a second store? 

Erica: I feel established when people say, "Oh yea, I know her." Part of it is you seem like a bigger business than you are. But something about opening the second store gave us a legitimacy that I didn't expect. We started getting a lot more serious, with big orders for the fine jewelry. Suddenly people trusted us more. There are some times when people meet me and are like, "Oh my God, I love your stuff." And I get very, woah. This is weird.

Do you think that has a lot to do with it being a namesake line?

Erica: Yes. And for a long time I was like, why did I do this? About three years into the business I tried to change the name, but by then it was already established just enough that it was too late. Erica Weiner is a terrible name. Like, Weiner? That shouldn't even be a person's name. It's bad. It's not pretty, it's not memorable, it's hard to pronounce. I wonder also what my partner thinks, because she has been in this since the beginning and she does as much creative work as I do.

Photo by Michelle McLaughlin/Courtesy of Erica Weiner

I've made a lot of things that don't sell, but it's almost like you don't care. I have no other option. I don't have another plan. Shana Tabor [of In God We Trust] is a good friend, and she helped me get my head around the idea of opening a first store and opening the second store. I'm definitely not the only person she's a business mentor to. She's like the hipster princess of New York. 

She told me once the way she acquired one of her stores was by writing a note to the landlord and slipping it under the door.

Erica: Oh yea, she did. And she's very true to herself. She's a great, tireless business woman and will help everyone. She and I should be competitors, technically. But she will never keep any piece of information I need from me. Most women in this business aren't competitive like that. But some dudes are a little bit. 

When your 1909 collection came out, you said something about how the storytelling of the piece is half the importance. Since you've been doing this for so long, do you have other advice for someone trying to develop their small business from a flea-market booth to a full-fledged store?

Erica: For us, it was finding the right flavor. The storytelling is really important, but for me, I have to have my hands on every goddamn thing. Everything needs to have the hand of Erica on it. One huge thing is you have to have a real talent for something. Hard work can get you pretty far, but if you're not really talented visually, plus being great at business, you should probably just hitch a wagon to someone who is very gifted. 

I guess after eight years, maybe I am more comfortable saying I have a gift for combining business sense—like hard business decisions and risk taking with design and styling.

Photo by Michelle McLaughlin/Courtesy of Erica Weiner

Business sense is a huge thing. I know a few women who are way more talented than me at making jewelry. It's not my greatest talent, but it's more like keeping the machine oiled and functioning and growing. I'm going to mix my metaphors here, but it's almost like when you're making bread, you need to keep feeding it sugar and yeast or it'll die. I just keep feeding that yeast—working, and refining. If there was a one-word answer, it would be refine that shit.

Another thing is, if you're not making a profit and you're just consistently losing money—this is a business, I'm not designing stuff for fun. If you want to design stuff for fun, design stuff for fun or join a bigger company. But I guess everyone should try. The world will weed you out if you're not meant to do it.

Do you know specifically where you want to open in the West?

Erica: San Francisco is a good candidate. My husband's family is there so I'm there a couple times a year anyway. But I'm close friends with Currie Person, the woman who owns Spartan in Austin and a couple of other great places there and in Portland, and we're doing a pop-up shop with her in Portland over the summer to test the water. But part of the reason Portland keeps coming up is because Lindsey, my business partner, is from there and wants to move back eventually.

Okay, time for the lightening round. Beach or mountains?

Erica: Mountains. 

Jay-Z or Justin Timbelake? 

Erica: Jay-Z, obviously.

Will you be watching Mad Men or Game of Thrones?

Mad Men.

Mustard or mayonnaise?

Erica: [Long pause.] Is it like, homemade hipster craft mayonnaise? 

Sure, like artisanal mayonnaise.

Erica: Artisanal mayonnaise. 

8am or 8pm?

Erica: 8pm. 

And 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s?

Erica: '70s. 

· Inside Erica Weiner's Enchanting New Boerum Hill Store [Racked NY]
· Erica Weiner's 1909 Line Was Inspired by Her Scrappy Grandma [Racked NY]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Coverage [Racked NY]

In God We Trust

70 Greenpoint Street, Brooklyn, NY 11222 718 389 3545 Visit Website

Erica Weiner Store

173 Elizabeth Street, New York, NY 10012 212 334 6383 Visit Website