It might seem like a strange omen, opening an “old timey general store” at the onset of one of the worst financial crises in the collective memory of most Americans, but Mary Brockman and Mark Straiton have weathered the storm with their store Kill Devil Hill.
“We felt it too.” Straiton tells me on a gorgeous summer afternoon outside his store (170 Franklin Street)
“Small business has felt the decline in shoppers all around. I do feel people have been positively referencing the bad times, which is a good thing – to embrace it rather than deny it, and to make due with what you have. We had to adjust our business plan accordingly, but for the most part, I think we are doing pretty good, and business has picked up.”
Straiton’s positive outlook could be simply due to the fact that the philosophy behind his store is one that is rooted in a different kind of America, one that we seem to have lost or forgotten. “We do all sorts of stuff, clothing, antiques. From the Industrial revolution to the industrial decline. We wanted a general store feel to it where we sold everything.” There is no corporate sloganeering in Straiton’s words, and as we sit outside, the heavily tattooed, bespectacled store owner is greeted by at least ten people during the course of our conversation. This would make sense since Brockman and Straiton have sought to be part of the growing number of thriving independent businesses on Franklin Street. Straiton is quick to point out that the street they are on “was the main street at the turn of last century in Greenpoint with big, major thoroughfare with all the docks, and manufacturing.”
He continues on, telling me the history of many of the buildings that surround him, while Brockman gives glowing reviews of locals like The Diamond and the clothing boutique Dalaga. Straiton, making mention of the downturn the community took from the 1950’s until it’s rebirth a few years ago, puts the turnaround directly on the community of Greenpoint: “It’s the local community, and local businesses saying ‘look, we all live here, we all work here, lets clean up our neighborhood and take care of things’, and the neighborhood has benefitted from that.”
As we slowly claw ourselves from the mire that is this recent recession, it might make sense for many to co-opt the simple ideas that seem to guide the owners of the little general store on one of the most bustling blocks in north Brooklyn. Working with the local community is one of the important cornerstones of what is helping not only kill Devil Hill thrive in these hard times, but the other small stores that surround it. Brockman mentions that “around Christmas we talked with Permanent Records, and WORD (bookstore) to see how we could get more shoppers to come down here.” Stration, noting that taking on smaller tasks aside from selling merchandise, notes that “We also do electrical repairs, if it doesn’t have a computer chip, I can fix it.” Mary’s tailoring has also become part of the landscape of many happy Greenpointers, whose favorite pairs of jeans may be kept together by her sewing. Straiton is also becoming handy with the needle and thread, and now the duo have launched their own small, made-to-order menswear line, B.S. Mercantile. And while the pair don’t have designs on being the next Levi’s or Gap, Straiton does keep in mind that he always wants to make the community happy, growing with it, and helping to build it. “We had an idea, and it’s really snowballed. It’s really interesting to look at our original business plan to see what we were going to do, and what we wound up doing. A lot of that comes with the changing times and tastes.”
As another passerby waves hello on one of last summer days of 2009, the co-owner of the small store that has and does everything smiles, and gives up what might truly be the secret to the stores survival and success in these trying times: “It seems we grow with the neighborhood, rather than sticking with the plan.”