On a sunny Saturday morning early in November, a rustic, wooden sandwich board stationed on a tranquil corner of Franklin Street pointed passers-by in the direction of Le Grenier, a quaint antiques and housewares store occupying one of the Victorian row houses at the most westerly tip of Greenpoint Avenue.
Owner Maya Marzolf sat patiently at her counter behind a treasure trove of antique furniture, dishware, cutlery, tools, knickknacks, and a variety of arty objects busily occupying 800 square feet of retail space. Out in the garden, Galileo, the shop’s recently adopted cat, slinked between croquet wickets to amuse himself in the absence of any customers enjoying a few moments of fun.
Such days have been common for Ms. Marzolf since opening her store on May 15 this year amid the worst recession in over 70 years. But with the festive season looming and construction of a new East River waterfront park slated for next spring, the 32-year-old remains buoyant about the future.
“I’m probably at the level I expected to be,” said Ms. Marzolf of her first six months in business. “They say it always takes about two years for something to really kick in.”
The concept for Le Grenier—French for “The Attic”—had been brewing for some time, dating back to when Ms. Marzolf helped with set designs during her decade-long career as a fashion photography producer. A love of antiques fuelled by a long-term project to renovate her Greenpoint home became entwined with her artistic eye as she travelled to upstate New York in search of furnishings. She now returns to that area a few times each month to find unique items for her customers. Trips to Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Western Pennsylvania also offer cheaper prices than stocking up locally.
Ms. Marzolf bought the business premises in August 2007 with her friend, Alex Martinengo, and so began a second renovation project. By the end of the year, she had left her day job to devote herself fully to her new venture.
“It was a complete gut job on the building,” she said. “But making so many mistakes renovating my home made doing the store easier.”
Her initial focus was on furniture sales, but Ms. Marzolf said the economic downturn has hampered demand and caused smaller items—the knickknacks—to be far more popular. She described the store as housing a “combination of industrial things and delicate, pretty things,” but said its defining factor is not in its goods.
“I’m selling my eye more than anything else,” she said.
This particular morning started promisingly with one customer picking up a $720 antique cabinet which Ms.Marzolf and Martinengo carefully manoeuvred through the narrow doorway and into a parked van. Though Martinengo does not work at the store, he is willing to lend a hand whenever he is around.
“Maya did my apartment, so I need to help out a little bit,” he said. “My place wouldn’t look like it does if it wasn’t for her.”
An hour later, Greenpoint resident Tiffany McCannon visited Le Grenier for the first time having spotted the sandwich board. “It was a lovely store,” she said, walking to her car with a small purchase. “Her tastes are amazing. I haven’t seen anything like it in the neighbourhood.”
Carol Scott, who lives a few doors away, said the store was “an asset to the block and the neighbourhood.”
As a student in the late-1990s, Ms. Marzolf was headed for a place at medical school before she veered in a different direction by taking a job at Condé Nast. She admits that her lack of proper schooling in antiques has led to problems when trying to set sales prices, but she is learning by researching auction websites like First Dibs and keeping track of similar items on eBay.
Ben Harnett, another Greenpoint resident, said he found the store to be “a little pricey”—a complaint that Ms. Marzolf has heard from a few passing locals despite her goal of keeping her mark-up as small as possible. She thinks that perception is slowly changing.
“There are more people coming here specifically for antiques now, and I’m constantly hearing how underpriced everything is,” she said.
After six months, her days are still long, business is still frustratingly slow, and she still has much to learn about antiques, but Ms. Marzolf never hankers for her days on fashion shoots.
“It’s nice not having anyone yelling any more,” she said.