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Welcome to Shoe Week: a five-day celebration of all things footwear, from the best new arrivals to our favorite places to shop for heels, flats, and everything in between.Photos by William Chan
A massive new sign was being installed at Shoe Market when we met up with co-owners Dana Schwister and Erika Vala to talk shop. First impression: things must be going alright for the little shoe store on Williamsburg's booming North 6th Street. Known for a mix of wearable but on-trend styles—think lots of block heels—the boutique offers footwear in a range of price points for men and women.
The store grew from Dana and Erika's first retail venture, Mini Market, which boasts a 1999 birthday, making it Williamsburg's oldest boutique. As sales of shoes skyrocketed, the duo knew they needed to open a dedicated store just for footwear, and thus, Shoe Market was born. From opening their first store with a cash register they didn't know how to use to inspiring the first Jefferey Campbell's style to be sold at Urban Outfitters, the ladies have 14 years of New York City retailing under their belts—not without serious hustle, of course. After the jump, the laughter-prone owners walk us through days of $5 sales, buying for tourists, and more.
What made you want to open a store?
Erika: We opened Mini Market first in 1999, and that was really Dana's idea. She called me in July, we were acquaintances, and said, "I want to open a store, but I can't work in it"—because she had her own wholesale line—and I was like, "I can work in the store!" because I worked part-time at FIT. We opened the store in October.
So it was just like that, from July to October, open?
Erika: I think we signed the lease in August. We had a cash register from Staples and we didn't know how to use it. We had nothing. I put everything on my credit card, everything was consignment.
How did Shoe Market grow from Mini Market?
Dana: We had shoes at the Mini Market—we still do—and we just sold a lot of them. Erika said we had to open a shoe store.
What year did Shoe Market open?
So you had been doing Mini Market for about eight years before opening Shoe Market.
Dana: Yeah. Mini Market is the oldest boutique store in Williamsburg.
Why did you choose Williamsburg?
Dana: We lived here!
What was Williamsburg like in 1999?
Dana: There was nothing here! It was a different time.
Erika: It was a slow development, in Williamsburg.
Dana: Well, now I feel like it changes really fast.
What is the Williamsburg 1999 of today?
Dana: I don't think you can compare it to anything. I think the South Bronx will be the next area that really blows up.
What was it like opening the shop? Compare opening Mini Market and Shoe Market.
Erika: They were both really hard in different ways.
Dana: We're hustling, we don't have backers, we don't have family that's going to loan us money. For us, it's always been a hustle—trying to work with what we have, which isn't a lot.
Erika: We just try to reinvest what we make. We understood a little bit better when we opened this store how much you need to buy the inventory, stuff like that. We didn't understand that opening the first store.
Dana: We had a $5 day once [at Mini Market] and I was freaking out.
Erika: "No less than a $50 day!" [Laughs] That was a long time ago.
Nanette Lepore gave a talk at FIT recently, and noted that her father had to mortgage his home to help her open her first store. She said, "Don't expect to pay yourself more than fifty cents an hour." She didn't make a profit for ten years.
Dana: It's true. We didn't get paid for a long time. Any money. For years.
What do you see when you picture your typical customer?
Erika: Our girl's kind of like us.
Dana: You can't pigeonhole who our customer is because we have all different types of customers. People from all over the world, people of different ages. They want something that's unique, they want quality, they want something they can really use, they're not into frivolous shoes.
Erika: Shoes that are hard to wear, they're never into that.
When you do your buys, are you thinking about what hole you're going to fill for people?
Erika: We try to pick the best things from everything that we see. We learn a lot from the season before.
What are your favorite items in the store right now?
Dana: I love this shoe that I'm wearing [the Rachel Comey Dazze in silver]. It's a little frivolous.
Erika: I love these [Maguba Rio in bright red].
Erika: We work a lot with Jeffrey Campbell. We started working with him at the very beginning.
Dana: We were one of Jeffrey Campbell's first customers, at the Mini Market.
How did you find out about him at the time?
Dana: We just met him at a trade show.
Erika: Then we gave him some shoes we really liked, to see if he could make them, and he did and we did really good with them, then he sold [the style] to Urban Outfitters. It was the first thing he sold to them, and he did great with it so that was like when he really started.
Do you remember the style name?
Dana: Yes, it was called the Tea Sandal. It was one of Erika's shoes.
Erika: It was like an old, vintage shoe that I had.
Are you in the store every day?
Erika: Yes. Well, we're always in the office.
What do you look for in an employee?
Dana: They have to be nice.
Erika: Nice. Reliable. Good sense of humor.
Dana: Willing to work hard. Lift boxes.
Is there a "holy grail" item you'd love to stock but haven't been able to get?
Dana: Louboutins [laughs]. No, I'm not dying to have those here.
What's your general thought on pricing?
Erika: Affordable. We like to have a few things in here that are little more expensive. The Rachel Comey items are the highest priced items.
Dana: We don't want someone to pick something up and feel bad that they can't buy it. The Rachel Comey items are the most expensive, and the most expensive is $430.
How do you think your e-commerce business complements your brick and mortar store?
Dana: There are definitely people that come into the store, they try it on, they think about it, and buy it later online. Our e-commerce business tends to be actually really localized. A lot of our customers are in the tri-state region, so maybe they come into our store and they decided they need to get that item that they didn't get. We have people who live in the neighborhood who maybe can't come in during store hours, they'll order online and then come into the store and pick it up.
What advice do you have to someone trying to break into retail?
Dana: Be prepared to work hard [laughs], and not make money for a long time.
Erika: I notice when friends of mine open a store, they work toward the day that they're going to open, as if that's the finished product and it's going to be all done and I always tell them, no—that's your starting point, then everything's going to change. You have to be ready for that. It breaks you a little bit.
Dana: You have to be ready to listen to your customer. You're not paying the bills, your customers is.
Speaking of customers, do you have a lot of regulars or do you find that a lot of tourists come through the store?
Dana: We have both. We're fortunate to be in an area that a lot of tourists do come through, and tourists like to spend money. That really helps. I think it would be hard to have just one or the other.
Lightening round! Uptown or downtown?
Tumblr or Pinterest?
'60s, '70s, or '80s?
Mayo or mustard?
Mad Men or Game of Thrones?
Erika: Game of Thrones.
Jay-Z or Kanye?
Beach or Mountains?
Go-to neighborhood lunch spot?
Dana: This ramen place right here [points to corner of N. 6th and Berry Street], I don't know what it's called.
Erika: It's new!
Dana: No, it's not new, they just started serving lunch.
Erika: Oh, well it feels new.
Go-to post-work watering hole?