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Sincerely Tommy's Owner on Being a Bed Stuy 'Retail Pioneer'

Photos by <a href="http://drielys.com/">Driely S.</a> for Racked
Photos by Driely S. for Racked

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Call this the year of the concept shop—Space Ninety 8 proved that banh mi poutine and BDG denim do indeed mix, Flatiron's Club Monaco plopped a Toby's Estate outpost and a mini version of The Strand amongst its pencil skirts, and Polo Ralph Lauren now serves up coffee with its cable-knits. But Sincerely Tommy's Kai Avent-deLeon has taken the idea of a store-slash-café in a more daring direction by focusing her attention on a relatively untapped contemporary retail market—Bed Stuy.

The boutique, which opened on Tompkins Avenue three weeks ago, has already garnered buzz for its mix of up-and-coming designers (we spotted pieces by Nanushka, Collina Strada, and Deer Dana on the racks), revolving art collection, and front-of-store coffee shop. "I think if people start seeing these sorts of things popping up they'll be more prone to stay in the neighborhood on the weekends, stay local, and hang out," the former Chanel employee (and Bed Stuy native) tells us. And nothing encourages hanging out quite like coffee and free Wifi. "I'm aware that not all of the price points are within the everyday budget, so I don't want someone to come in and automatically feel intimidated," Avent-deLeon says. "This is definitely more of an interactive component—we welcome people to sit on their computers and do whatever."

We stopped by Sincerely Tommy to chat with Avent-deLeon about running a store with her mother and grandmother, her plans to transform the dressing room into a performance space, and writing a business plan from scratch.

You've been open for three weeks! Tell us about your first 21 days as a store owner.

The feedback has been really good, a lot of people have read about it or just seen it on Instagram. The locals just pop in, they don't really know that we're open yet. I think it's so unexpected that they're like, "Can I go in?" They're still figuring us out, but we're working on some ways to keep the traffic consistent because obviously this is more of a residential area, not a retail destination.

Have you always worked in fashion?

I've been in retail for about seven years, always women's clothing. My first job was in Fort Greene at a clothing store similar to this, in terms of the vibe. It was pretty laid-back and very focused on the creative people in the neighborhood. It was there that I kind of found myself and what I wanted to do. From there I did all the men's buying and then I started working for a few boutiques here and there, and then I went on to Chanel for about a year and a half doing operations.

What does that mean, when you work in operations at Chanel?

It's a lot of back end work—opening and closing the store, managing the staff, dealing with all the reports and repairs. Not the fun stuff! But it definitely taught me a lot about branding and customer service, which is really important to me because I want you to have a good experience when you come into this place. It's really critical, especially for this location, that people remember it versus just coming in, not really shopping, and leaving. And that's why the coffee counter is here too, so that people can hang out.

When did you know that you wanted to open your own store?

Since I was 16. That's when I discovered that I wanted to have one—but actually making it happen? Probably three years ago. I started a small jewelry line, just brass pieces—really simple. And I was passionate about it, but it didn't feel like a life calling so I was like, "I really want to have a store, how can I still do jewelry and do what I want?" I started working on a business plan and looking for a place in Bed-Stuy.

Have you always lived in Bed Stuy?

Yeah, for the majority of my life. I lived upstate for a few years in Sleepy Hollow and Pleasantville and I came back.

Your whole family is involved in the business! How does that work?

My mom and my grandmother both have helped me tremendously. My grandmother purchased the building—she came here in the '80s and started buying brownstones. She had nothing, but she worked her way up, and because of her we had these foundations to build our own businesses from. My mom has helped me a lot just in terms of planning the business. We have similar taste, so she's a good partner to work with.

Is your mom also an entrepreneur?

Yeah, she used to have a vegan café on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens. It was open for five years and then she just got burned out. Now she does the real estate stuff with my grandmother.

What's the Bed Stuy retail scene like? Are there more clothing stores nearby?

There are no other clothing stores. There's a vintage store about three blocks down—some days they're open, some days they're not. There's actually a woman on the next block who's opening up another concept store, she should be open within a month or so. So we are the pioneers of the contemporary retail game over here.

Do you feel like this area is poised for more retail to come in?

I do, I think if people start seeing these sorts of things popping up they'll be more prone to stay in the neighborhood on the weekends, stay local, and hang out. Because we're the only place here, I feel like people are still getting used to being able to shop in this neighborhood. The clientele is here, because you see it when you go to the Bed Stuy restaurants and bars.

Why did you decide to open a coffee shop in the store?

I'm aware that not all of the price points are within the everyday budget, so I don't want someone to come in and automatically feel intimidated. This is definitely more of an interactive component—we welcome people to sit on their computers and do whatever. It's been cool because so far, the people I do see that stay and hang out are musicians or graphic designers and they're playing their music, and that's what I want. I kind of want it to be a collective where you can bounce ideas off of each other. People will come to me and share their art, which is really awesome. So that's why the coffee counter is here.

Have there been any coffee-clothing mishaps yet?

There have been a couple of moments where people will sit in the chairs for sale with their coffee, and I'm not the type to be like, "You can't sit there." But for the most part, people get it. We haven't had any major issues yet.

Who is the Sincerely Tommy girl?

A young creative girl who has an appreciation for unique pieces that are timeless but still classic and one-of- a-kind.

What are your price points?

We have an in-house line that ranges from $50 to $120.

Do you design the in-house line?

It's a separate company, but I pick out every piece from a bigger collection, and we are the only store in the U.S. to carry it. So it is kind of exclusive to us until someone else decides to pick it up. But the pieces are great; they've actually been selling really well. Outside of that, the other brands that we carry range from about $150 to $1,000.

When you were doing your buying for the store, did you have any brands that you absolutely knew that you wanted to carry?

Nanushka was definitely on the list, and Karla Spetic. Nanushka is a brand out of Budapest and I thought her price points were great, and she just has very strong collections. Each piece really stands out on its own, which is what I look for in a brand. Karla Spetic is a little pricier, but once you know the story behind it, it justifies the pricing. She does her own custom prints each season, and this time it was highway signs. Everything incorporates that in some way.

How many employees do you have right now?

We have one part time employee and one intern.

What do you look for when you're hiring?

A girl who definitely has her own style, but also gets the concept behind the store and feels like she can contribute something to that and really represent the brand. Someone who's passionate about the brand. And also someone who has an appreciation for the neighborhood, because that's really important to me since I grew up here. I think somebody may look at it and be like, "Why did you open up a store in Bed Stuy? There's nothing else like it." But having someone who understands why I did it here, being from the neighborhood and wanting to keep it here, is important too.

What do you love about Bed-Stuy?

There's just a sense of community here that I've never gotten in any other place that I've lived, and I don't really get in any other area of Brooklyn. It's definitely more intimate. I grew up four blocks from here, but on this block I already feel like I have another little family. Everyone is very welcoming.

Do you have any favorite places in the area?

I would say my favorite food place is Ali's on Fulton, it's a Trinidadian roti shop. It's like a huge pancake that's really flat and you put whatever you want in there. I love Caribbean food because my family's Caribbean. I like the park in Fulton, it's just small and cute and quiet. I like seeing the older guys playing chess.

You also carry home goods!

The furniture line we have right now is by a local designer, Ben Erickson. All the materials—the leather and the wood—are sourced from local mills. I just love his work, I think it fits in really well, and to me the price points are really great for what it is—local, custom, handmade pieces.

The artwork will always be rotating every three months, so right now we have an artist—his name is Charles but his artist's name is OWVBics—and he creates these weird, raunchy characters. All of the art is for sale, and the same goes for all of the beauty products and smaller home goods. These are all emerging brands, all of the beauty products are made in small batches and are vegan-friendly.

Was it important to you to carry vegan products?

I was born and raised vegan. My mom is a vegan, my grandmother is vegetarian.

Do your mom and your grandma hang out in the store?

Oh completely, I'm surprised they're not here right now. She may pop up—my mom is usually here in the mornings, she'll cover from 12pm to 2pm. My grandmother just hangs around. She lives a few blocks away, too.

Do they ever give their input?

Yeah, a little too much sometimes, actually! They're very stylish women. My grandmother definitely dances to the beat of her own drum. She's very eclectic, but we all have our own separate styles which is what makes this so interesting.

What are their styles like?

My grandmother is a little more ethnic, she wears these dramatic horn earrings, these long flowy dresses and skirts with bold prints. My mom is like Ralph Lauren all the way, every day. And I'm a mix of both of them, but a little more minimalist. I'm all about my sneakers and big, oversized clothing.

Once you had the building, how long did it take for everything else to fall into place?
I made a business plan, which was really intimidating in the beginning because I had never written one or even looked at one.

How did you figure it out?

Funny story—my ex-boyfriend's neighbor bought me one of those "Business Plans for Dummies" books. I left my bike in the hallway of their building, and a friend of hers stole the basket, so she bought the book for me. He lived in a dodgy building, needless to say.

I used the book and I used Score, which is the free business counseling service in New York, and that helped so, so much. That program is amazing, I would recommend it to any small business just getting started because it's free and they give you any service you need—from finding financial help to building the business plan. And it actually came together really quickly, I was able to write it in a month. I think that's because I was so passionate about doing it.

Do you have plans to do e-commerce?

Yeah, when I get a free moment it will be up! We're trying to get it up before the end of the month, so that's a huge thing for us.

How was your opening day? What was going through your mind?

I thought people would just trickle in and out. We had about 200 people that day, and it was just phenomenal. We made some really good sales, met some people in the community, and the support was just amazing. I think a lot of people that have been here were just surprised at the transition because this was a hardware store for like 30 years, and now it's this and they think, "Oh my god, this looks like it should be in SoHo."

I know you're only a few weeks in, but do you have something that's doing particularly well for you?

The in-house line has definitely been the best seller. On the beauty products side, I would say vegan-friendly products from Herbivore Botanicals, and the nail stickers. We have Biggie nail stickers, ODB, The Golden Girls—people love those.

What's next for Sincerely Tommy?

I want to do a monthly music showcase where we have an emerging singer or artist come and invite maybe 10 of their friends and then we can invite 10 people. So that fitting room back there could be used as a mini stage. It would be like an acoustic thing, with people just sitting on pillows on the floor.

I'm working on putting together classes for kids in the community. I want them to be able to come in and do something creative—like learning how to make a t-shirt—because I don't feel like there are a lot of options like that in this neighborhood. I want young people in this community to see people from here investing back into the community because I think too often these neighborhoods change and you're either pushed out or you kind of forget about it and that's it.

Time for the lightning round!

8am or 8pm?

8pm

Beer or wine?

Wine

Whiskey or tequila?

Tequila

Beach or mountains?

Beach

Cats or dogs?

Dogs

Favorite vacation destination?

Paris

Favorite lunch spot?

Ali's

Favorite neighborhood happy hour spot?

Doris

Rap or country?

Rap

Coffee or tea?

Tea

How do you take it?

Plain

Introvert or extrovert?

Introvert

· Sincerely, Tommy [Official Site]
· Better Know a Store Owner [Racked NY]

Sincerely Tommy

343 Tompkins Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11216