The Brook Farm General Store Story
Posted on June 21 2019
Brook Farm General Store is ten! To celebrate and to say thank you, we would like to share a little bit about ourselves and our wonderful experience over the last decade.
Wisely or not, we have always done everything ourselves, from selecting the products to building the shelves; from answering emails to calling Japan at midnight; from building the website to sweeping the floors. So try as we might, there really is no way to separate ourselves from the story.
Ten years ago today, we first opened the doors of Brook Farm General Store. It was the spring of 2009, the economy was just coming out of a major recession, and our lease was up. We had been living in a railroad apartment in Williamsburg for the past few years, and decided to see what else was available. So when we saw a listing on Craiglist for a live/work space on South 6th Street, we decided to go check it out.
We went to see it expecting to be shown a typical banged up loft with a sketchy bolt on the fire door, but instead we were shown this big white space in a new apartment building tucked under under the Williamsburg Bridge.
As we walked through the two floors of the space, we looked at each other and knew we had to take it. But clearly this was not really an apartment, it was a retail space. It was begging to be a store. That meant we would have to open a store. We were ready for a change, so this was an exciting thought, but what kind of store would we open? Williamsburg clearly had enough clothing stores, but it only had a couple of home stores, and so that seemed like the answer.
Christopher is half French and and half English, and my (Philippa) parents are from Puerto Rico and Holland, so we both had these mixed-up childhoods rich with international influences, and we thought we could bring our personal experiences and memories together to create something interesting. So we quit our jobs, moved out of our apartment, and decided to open a modern general store.
Everyone thought we were crazy.
We had hardly any money and we definitely did not have a business plan. But we also had no plan B, which meant there was no choice but to succeed. We moved into the new space in the middle of May. We had paid our first and last month's rent, and we negotiated one month of build-out time, which meant we had just under eight weeks to earn enough money to pay for July.
We spent about half our remaining budget on 18' pine boards from the local lumberyard, and had them delivered to the sidewalk on South 6th Street on a massive flatbed truck that blocked up the street for an hour. After lugging them all inside, we spent two weeks building shelves, and then painted everything white with the help of a couple of good friends.
When not building or painting, we were choosing products for our new store. We ordered some things we had always loved, and we found new small companies that were making beautiful objects, and ordered them too. We bought some cool vintage items, and pretty soon we had spent all of our money. We stayed up all night pricing everything and arranging it on our new white shelves. In the beginning, we sometimes didn't have quite enough merchandise, so it was hard to fill up the space.
Image via Decor8.
Opening morning was strange. We had worked for so long inside our space, creating this homemade store out of nothing, that it felt private, like our home, (which it was) rather than a public place. Opening the doors and inviting the public in was scary. What if nobody came? What if people did?
Images via Sunday Suppers.
But people did come, and they liked it. We were constantly working; changing, learning, and improving, and somehow along the way, we figured out how to run a business. Williamsburg was an exciting place, and we had customers from all around the world. Our neighbors were stylists, journalists, bloggers, musicians, artists, and actors, and we began to get lots of press.
One day we received a phone call from the NY Times style section. They told us that their Secret Shopper had been in our store, and they were going to run a story about us. The Secret Shopper doesn't run anymore, (bring it back, NY Times) but for a while it was the best section in the newspaper. The reviews of stores were sometimes cutting and funny, but were usually spot on. They mainly wrote about fashion stores, so this was a huge honor for us. You can imagine how nervous we were.
She must have been in a good mood that day, because the Secret Shopper liked our store. You can read her story here. After that review, business really picked up.
Image via NY Times style section.
Image via Racked.
We soon realized that in order to sell what we really wanted, we would have to make things ourselves. So we started working on our own line of products, which we called Tourne. We worked with small manufacturers to produce wool blankets, ceramic dinnerware, stationery, and natural products for the home and body. The designing and manufacturing process was rewarding and fun, but one at a time, most of the small factories we were working with either shut down or became overwhelmed.
Images via Remodelista.
We had started our first website within a year of opening. It was still early days for online retail, and we were one of the first small stores selling homewares on the web. Websites were pretty basic, so we had to figure it out all out for ourselves. We were taking pictures, writing descriptions, and packing boxes all night long.
And then we had our first kid, and the craziness really began.
Image via Taschen.
Image via the Telegraph UK.
Images via SpottedSF.
We took our first vacation for a week in January 2012 a few months after our son was born. Some of our online customers were not happy about having to wait for their orders. We still remember one of the angry emails we received that said, "Some of us have to work for a living. What the f***?" That was awful, but we apologized and realized it was time to hire someone to help us out.
Having sales staff freed us up to concentrate on the website. We were able to take longer buying trips, and to focus more energy on Tourne. One of our favorite collaborations was working with an organic farm in upstate NY. We hosted a csa in the store, and members would stop by and pick up their veggies on Thursday evenings from May-November. It was a huge success. Although we did have that one incident with an overly large bug...
Image via Brook Farm General Store
Image via Goop and Cup of Jo
But we missed working in the store. Chatting with customers and friends, seeing people's reactions to products, being available to tell the (sometimes long) backstory of a brush or a basket was what made the job fun. We started feeling like managers, and Brook Farm was losing its mom and pop vibe.
And after five long years, we were getting burnt out. As every shopkeeper knows, running a store means you are working when everyone else is not, which translates to holidays, weekends, late into the evenings.
And then we learned we were having a second baby. We had a hard think, and eventually decided that it was time for us to leave the city. We wanted our kids to grow up by the beach, and we needed to find some sort of work/life balance. Is that ever possible? So we decided to spend some time to focusing on our family and brookfarmgeneralstore.com.
We had a huge closing down sale, and then packed whatever was left into moving trucks and came out to the East End.
Image via Brownstoner.
If you had asked us when we opened our store what we would be doing in ten years, I can guarantee the answer would not have been living in the woods by the sea with two kids, a dog and chickens. Yet, here we are.
A decade later, the online retail scene is very different from how it was in 2009 when we started, but happily, Brook Farm General Store is still going strong. We have big plans for the future, and are excited to start making our own products again. We are expanding our wholesale business, (if you are interested in wholesale, please send us an email) and will be doing some pop-ups this summer (more info coming soon), and who knows what else? Maybe there will be another store still to come.
The future is an exciting place, and we look forward to visiting it with you.
Thank you so much for all of your support and love throughout our first ten years!
Stay tuned for our follow up post about our favorite classic items, and maybe some new things too...
And don't forget to use coupon code TEN for 10% your order.
Philippa & Christopher
Image via Sunday Suppers.