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Though general stores are typically found on back-country roads, New Jersey native Ann Cantrell loved the thought of opening one in an urban area. And after spending 12 years in the corporate fashion world as a product developer for companies like Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, and Coach, she took the plunge and opened Annie's Blue Ribbon General Store in Boerum Hill in 2007.
"I like the idea of functionality in this eclectic, edited-but-not-edited kind of way," explained Cantrell, who is also a full-time professor at FIT. "I love color, and I love lots of stuff. We're not minimalist at all." But that doesn't mean she'll sell just anything, which lead to her store's name. "The blue ribbon part of it is that it's the best life has to offer all under one roof. If you go to a big box store and you want to buy an alarm clock or something, there's 10 options. We'd try to just find one option that we think is best."
Last August, Cantrell moved her shop to Park Slope for more space, which meant she had a lot more room to cram in her wares. Read on to find out the multitude of useful products she carries, her accidental support of local businesses, and how social media is "a two-way street" for her business.
How did you go about opening a store like this?
I had this idea for an urban general store for about 12 years. I had tons of business plans and I was trying to figure out how to finance it. I thought of starting off as a website, and maybe if I lived in the suburbs and had a big house, I might have done that.
I was living in Brooklyn, and I just loved that area [of Boerum Hill]. I just kind of stumbled on our original space. At first, I thought it wasn't big enough, but I loved the corner—it had really nice energy and nice big windows, so I went for it.
How did that neighborhood change while you were there?
When we first signed our lease, there was a homeless shelter down the street that had closed like the night before we opened. But when we were leaving, there was an Armani Exchange right in that same area. So we were pioneers.
If you loved Boerum Hill so much, why did you decide to move to Park Slope?
We were there for six years, and we just needed more space. And at the same time I started looking around, Scaredy Cat who was in this space, approached us about taking over. They wanted to move to North Carolina, but they wanted someone cool in the neighborhood to take over their spot. So it just was a total win-win. We got more space and we definitely got more visibility.
What's the difference in size between your old location and this one?
It's over twice the size now, and we have a full basement, so now we have more room for storage. And we also have this backyard—we're super excited to do something with that.
Has anything else changed with your move, like your customer base?
I feel like we get a wider audience that can see what we've been doing. That's all I ever wanted —just more people to see it. I think we're really clever. We really get new things in everyday, so we try to keep it fresh. And I just love that there's more eyes to see it.
The store has just gotten stronger and I feel like I know our customer better now. We're honed in what their needs are.
And what are their needs?
They're very well-traveled, educated, and have seen a lot of stuff, so you have to really look deep to give them some surprises. And I love when people are like, "I've never seen that before!" So I really try to buy for the customer. There are a lot of men who shop here, and young families as well. Typical, cool Brooklyn people.
So how do you find these surprises to sell?
Part of it is things I get, personally, as presents—I have to hunt it down and get it. Or I'll see something in a blog or a magazine. I go to some trade shows, but if you just go to the trade shows, then you're just going to have what everyone else has. Etsy wholesale has also been awesome.
We also get presented with cool ideas and cool new projects, like this guy who came in with these DIY water tower kits [see them in the gallery]. I was like, "Oh my gosh! Have you been to any other stores? Don't. We want them all."
That must lead to a very diverse mix of offerings.
What I love about having the idea of a general store, versus just a gift shop, is that we can have a lot of product categories that other stores can't. We have cleaning products, which I'm kind of swooning over—that's a funny thing to swoon over. And I love medicine kits. You know, functionality but fun-ness, like gummy-flavored band-aids in the first aid section.
We have snowballs here, so you can have an indoor snowball fight. I gave these as a Secret Santa gift at a party, where my friend had rented the back room of a restaurant, and we all went crazy having a snowball fight.
Do you carry a lot of products made in Brooklyn?
I like supporting local businesses, but I don't think I search anything out. It's just that when we start to research companies that we like, I'm like "Oh my god, they're in Fort Greene!" Or "They're in Williamsburg!" It just happens. There are a lot of great things going on.
How did you design this space for maximum functionality?
We go by categories. We have a Brooklyn section. Brooklyn people are proud of where they're from, and tourists like it too. So I wanted to put that up front, so you could see it from the windows. We have a lot of party stuff that's just so pretty that it had to be up front. And that's followed by the bar section—it just seemed like a natural continuation.
And these tables up front change, depending on what we're into at the moment. We added a candy table with fun, bright colors. There's grab bag bins over there. If you come in with a kid, he can find something for $5. It's the best.
You have a theme table here for Valentine's Day as well.
We went crazy for Valentine's. Since Scaredy Cat was a card store—we had cards at our old shop, but we just didn't have enough—we definitely wanted to make sure the neighborhood knew that they'd still get lots of cards. And god, they're just so cute!
We're doing a Valentine's-themed event with [wrapping paper company] Snow & Graham on February 1, where you can make your own origami hearts and own valentines.
There's also a lot of home goods as well.
Yes, a lot of kitchen stuff. We're building back our inventory after the crazy holiday season. And we have cleaning products from New York or Brooklyn Companies. We love Common Good—we even have their refills here, so you can bring in your own container.
And we've always had a lot of artwork. We brought in this display system where you can easily move things around and change them up.
You already carry so many different types of merchandise, but are there any other categories you're looking to expand into?
We're going to do a bit of gardening, especially with our backyard. That's really our focus for the spring. We're nutty for Easter—I just bought so much Easter stuff, and we're going to have an Easter Egg hunt.
We're also going to do a barbershop category, which we're kind of obsessed with. We're going to do a whole window and event around barbershop.
Are you trying to reach any new customers with these categories?
We don't really think like that. My husband's always like, "If you're looking for it, then everyone's looking for it." We think about who our customers are and what's seasonally important at the time. Maybe I should think about getting more customers, but I just think about making people happy and making sure all their needs are met.
What I also love about this store is that you can knock out a baby gift, a gift for your boss, a gift for your mom. We're a full-service store.
What kinds of things are customers buying from your website?
That's really press-oriented, like if we have something featured in a magazine. You don't want to be too dependent on the press, because what happens if you don't get in something?
We have all the same categories online that we do in store, and again, it's very seasonal.
It also seems like a lot of people are reading the site's blog.
We get new things in everyday, and I'm so excited that I'm like "I gotta take a picture of this and share it." And that's how it got started, doing that kind of as free publicity. And then that feeds into our Facebook page, and now we're doing Instagram. It's just about communicating our message, what we're thinking and what we're feeling, to our customer.
So has social media been a driving part of your business?
Yes, and it's a fun part because it's a two-way street. When you open a store, you just hope people will come in and tell you something. Online, that you can see their reaction and see other people liking stuff, it's a really fun way to get involved.
Are you thinking about offering your own products?
I don't really have crazy ideas for new products, but I love well-packaged things that are presented nicely, so I have ideas for how things can be presented better. Toys, games, gifts—those kinds of things. We'll see how it goes.
Would you ever think about opening a second shop?
We're pretty happy right now with everything that's going on. We just want to master what we have going on here.
Okay, time for the lightning round: 8 a.m. or 8 p.m.?
Beer or wine?
Whiskey or tequila?
Beach or mountains?
Cats or dogs?
Favorite vacation destination?
Favorite neighborhood lunchtime spot?
Pizza Town. I eat pizza everyday.
Favorite happy hour spot?
I have a kid, so I don't really do happy hour anymore. But I do like Pork Slope.
Rap or country?
I'm a little bit more country.
Scandal or Homeland?
I just watched all of Scandal. I did not leave my house for 3 days. Homeland's not on Netflix—I don't watch regular TV.
· Annie's Blue Ribbon General Store [Official website]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]