Sunday, March 28, 2010

On East 1st Street, Go ‘Niche’ or Go Home

At the end of last week, Mirari, a dainty boutique with a shopkeeper to match, closed its doors forever. After a three-year run in the East Village, owner Mira Lee is headed back to Tokyo with her lace-trimmed dresses, silver baubles and feminine, antique furniture.

It’s easy to blame the economy for Lee’s financial woes— many New Yorker shoppers have less disposable income than in past years. Yet Mirari’s location at 70 E. 1st St. may be the true culprit behind her failure.

“This block is underdeveloped for general retail,” noted Marcus Antebi, who is renovating next door to Mirari for a business venture that he said he wasn’t ready to discuss yet. “Unless you have an incredible item, you’re not going to make it without a niche following.”

Mirari’s particular stretch of pavement just approaching First Avenue is home to numerous bustling food and drink establishments, but not a single other retail store. You’ll find two coffee shops— Juicy Lucy’s, a grab-and-go stand; and its gourmet neighbor, Bluebird, whose espresso was just praised in the Times.

Down the block is the Aussie import, Tuck Shop, which sells $5 savory pies and on weekends often has a line out the door. According to the store’s owner, Niall Grant, Tuck Shop’s business has boomed in recent years, and the owners just opened another store on St. Marks Place.

Cheap eats, it seems, are recession-proof. But Mirari’s $300 pink antique chairs were not.

For a while, there was an Indian clothing boutique next door to her shop. But two months ago, owner/designer Alpana Bawa moved her business to the Lower East Side due to lack of “shopping traffic,” she explained in an email sent from India. “It was mainly clients that I had developed over the years. My line is a bit expensive for the neighborhood.”

For Mirari, business wasn’t down; it simply was never ‘up’ in the first place. From the onset, her business plan was shaky. After studying fashion in Tokyo, the Korean-born Lee, 35, opened Mirari in 2007 with money borrowed from her parents. No one in her family had ever set foot in the United States. But growing up watching American TV dramas gave her a feel for the city and she “knew” that it would suit her. 

“I think any young woman would like to live in New York,” Mira said. “Here you can wear anything, but in Seoul, you are judged more. You have to think more about how people will react. Wearing something see-through will get you dirty looks.”

From Oct. 2007 to Dec. 2008, Lee said her rent was $2,500 a month while her sales were about  $3,000 a month. With tax and utilities, Lee began to feel financially unstable and uncomfortable in her lifestyle. She shared a loft with three other people and her money was beginning to run out.

Last year, the landlord temporarily lowered Lee’s rent to $1,500 but it’s about to increase. According to the landlord’s broker, Connie Neuhauser, a space the size of Mirari could rent for at least $2,000 a month. Meanwhile, Lee has been making fewer sales each month.

“I worked hard, and went through all that, and for now, that’s okay,” Lee said. Looking back, she said she wishes she had done things differently. For starters, she would have created a website and sold her clothes online before moving to New York to open a store.

Lee has been living in New York with an E2 Visa, a common way for foreign nationals to come to the United States to start their own businesses. Because she is not a citizen, closing her store means she has to leave the country by May 1st.

She’s decided to return to Tokyo, with plans to work at a friend’s bar.  She said that she’ll serve coffee by day and continue making her delicate jewelry and hand-stitched clothing on the side.

For a look at Mirari in its original glory, check out LaLa NYC's great pic:

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