An Interview with Greenjeans
Hear, Hear
Published 8am on 04/16/07 by Shawn | Discuss this article

Amy Shaw and Jae Kim

Greenjeans is many things. It is a retail store in Brooklyn, New York, that carries beautiful handmade objects – from wooden toys to beautiful pottery. It’s an alternative to the big corporate stores or the small, sometimes snobby, boutique shops that are everywhere in the city. It’s an alternative that is warmer, gentler and more fun. It’s a gallery with art that is affordable. It’s a store where kids refuse to leave, and adults can’t stop looking and touching each thing on the shelf.

Hear, Hear had the opportunity to interview the husband and wife team, Jae Kim and Amy Shaw, behind Greenjeans. We talked to them about the challenges and fun of running a retail store, what they do on the slower days, the tools of their everyday operation, and how they maintain such a good relationship running a business together and being married.

I. “Some combination of inspiration and desperation”

Hear, Hear: You guys are really young. How and why did you decide to start Greenjeans and take on the responsibility of running a retail store?

Amy Shaw: It was some combination of inspiration and desperation that led us to start Greenjeans. I’d finished grad school and was searching fruitlessly for a job. Jae had just gotten laid off for the third time in two years from an art handling company that went bust. And then, tragically, my mom passed away. It was really a very low point for us, but it gave us an opportunity to seriously reconsider what we were doing with our lives. Jae comes from a long line of entrepreneurs, and though I grew up with the message that you need a salary to survive, we decided to take the plunge and work for ourselves. We figured if we worked as hard for ourselves as we did for other people we’d do just fine!

As for the inspiration: I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but we found ourselves talking about the League of NH Craftsmen’s shops, and how there’s really nothing like that in the city. We did some market research and crunched some numbers and it started to look like there might be a viable market for this kind of shop. Greenjeans started feeling like something that already existed and it was up to us to bring it into the world. The notion of getting a job started to sound ridiculous. Our passion had been ignited and we worked to get things started as if we were on a mission.

Captain Kangaroo

HH: How did you come up with the name Greenjeans?

AS: It came to me one morning as I woke up, and I secretly think my mom somehow offered it to me – she loved Mr. Green Jeans from the old kid’s show Captain Kangaroo.

II. South Slope, the Seasons, and Finger Puppets

Greenjeans!

HH: Why did you pick Park Slope for your store location?

Jae Kim: This is the first actual store front we looked at. We looked at 5th Ave, Park Slope, where we wanted to be, looked at rent signs in front of empty stores, looked on the internet, but we couldn’t find anything viable. We couldn’t afford to pay that kind of rent right away. Then one time we found this ad on Craigslist – 300 sq. feet, 7th Ave – so I called the real estate agency, and we came to look at it. We took the place that same day, on Christmas Eve.

AS: We like the space, and we had a good feeling about the area. It seemed like a good neighborhood to get into then, because it was becoming something.

HH: The store has been opened for a year and a half. What have you noticed about how the seasons affect your business?

AS: We discovered that after Memorial Day, when kids are out of school, people disappear and traffic drops quite a lot. Especially on weekends, people going to the country, going on trips, so it definitely slows down. Although business has still been good, we just don’t have as much foot traffic. But at the same time, we’ve never been able to predict accurately for a particular day.

HH: Has there been any surprises, in terms of the business you’ve gotten?

Finger puppets by Jane Kaufmann

Finger puppets by Jane Kaufmann

AS: We knew we would get a lot of kids and people looking for toys. We knew we would find the young families and people buying house warming presents – those two things we knew we were able to sell, everything else has been pretty much conjecture. Some things we’d bring in, we’re not sure if they’d sell, but we like them, and they fly out the door – such as Kaufmann’s finger puppets. And there are other things we think are just phenomenal, and nobody buys them. And it’s the weirdest thing – our instincts are usually pretty good, but sometimes people are looking for completely different things, or they just don’t respond to certain things we did when we saw them.

Another surprise is how amiable all the business owners are in Park Slope. We would never pick up an artist who’s already with another shop, and likewise most shops don’t want to repeat with other Brooklyn shops. There’s a kind of code, and everyone is very respectful of it. It seems that everyone wants everyone to do well, and I think that’s partly to do with that South Slope is not Madison Avenue, it’s not you build it and you can have tons of customers. We’re all trying to work to make this neighborhood appealing to all shoppers.

III. Marketing and polishing silver jewelry, “everything takes twice as long as we think it should.”

HH: So when you’re by yourself during a slow day and there aren’t many people coming into the store, what do you do?

“We’re communicating all the time with artisans, about how they’re doing and if we need something else… Rearranging, cleaning and polishing silver jewelry, which is the bane of my existence.”

AS: I’m constantly busy! So much work with marketing and publicity: research on where we want to advertise, the rates, who to talk to, and we’re always working on a new press release. We do our own photography for all the items, maybe once every two weeks. Then all of the images require manipulations, to be good for the website, good for print. We’re always working on getting information from the artisans and writing a short essay about them. We’re communicating all the time with artisans, about how they’re doing and if we need something else. Rearranging, cleaning and polishing silver jewelry, which is the bane of my existence. And keeping everything looking good takes a lot of time. Keeping things organized takes a lot of time. Everything takes twice as long as we think it should.

If we get a review in a magazine or something, scanning it all in, using Illustrator to make it a nice one-page layout, that takes couple of hours. And then sending that around to all the artisans that were mentioned in it. There’s a lot of getting in touch with people. Keeping inventory, accounting… The postcard – Jae designs and I write. Keeping the blog is usually a few hours a week. I consider that to be… it’s personal, as I’d like to record my experience, but it’s also a marketing tool. It helps people to be aware of the shop and our ideas.

Jewelry at Greenjeans

“Rearranging, cleaning and polishing silver jewelry, which is the bane of my existence.”

HH: I think it’s really good of Greenjeans to tell us where the item we are purchasing comes from, how you tell a story about the maker of the object.

AS: That’s something we knew when we started Greenjeans, that we wanted to close the gap between the producer and consumer. I notice that more and more that a lot of catalogs would say things are handmade and it won’t even say if its imported or in the US, much less who made it. So okay – it’s handmade – but everything is touched by hand somewhere in the production, and it’s sort of meaningless if you don’t know who made it.

IV. “We don’t go to bed being unhappy about each other.”

HH: I’ve heard stories about married couple not being able to handle running a business together because they see each other all the time. Did you guys think of that? How do you handle that?

AS: Well, the easy answer to that is I’m really the boss here, and that’s the secret to marriage! (laughs)

Jae and I met working together, so right off the bat we knew we’re good at working together. It’s just something we share, and that’s sort of lucky. When I’m feeling moody or upset, I have to be careful to maintain patience and not take it out on Jae, just because he’s my husband!

JK: During the week, when both of us don’t have to be here, we give each other days off, and one of us will do other things… that’s important. But on an average we probably spend a lot more time than other married couples do, and things do get personal. But we have really good communication and we respect each other’s abilities - that’s another important thing. Whatever tasks there are, they just fall under each others umbrellas and intuitively we know amongst ourselves.

AS: Things aren’t always easy. When there are tensions and situations, it affects everything – our lives and our business, and we don’t let stuff between us negatively affect Greenjeans. so we’re very quick to deal with things, to talk things out.

JK: To put it simply, we don’t go to bed being unhappy about each other.

HH: Cash flow is important, and I imagine it to be tough for a retail store. Did you guys have an exit plan?

“You have to take a leap when you start a business, and then figure out how to do it… until you’re off the ground, you don’t necessarily know what you need to know…”“

AS: No. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but we don’t have an exit plan. When we were starting I thought that we need a full business plan, and we had a friend who was going to help us with it. Jae was saying that we don’t have the data – that we can make projection charts, but they don’t mean anything, because you don’t know how you’re going to do and how it’s going work out. His point of view is inspired by something Bloomberg wrote in his biography at one point, which is you have to take a leap when you start a business, and then figure out how to do it and what you need to do. Because until you’re off the ground, you don’t necessarily know what you need to know, or what is applicable.

You have to visualize your business, and that’s something, I think, more important than your business plan. It doesn’t mean knowing the color of the wall is, but knowing what the feeling is. We’re constantly working on things that are visual. Visualizing, thinking, and dreaming – we dream about having our shop in Paris, London, Tokyo, Dumbo, and this might all be just half joking but we feel that if we can do this, why not do it to that extent? I didn’t think we can do this at all, so why not?

Wooden spoons by Dan Dustin

The most amazing wooden spoons by Dan Dustin.

HH: If you can go back to when you were just starting, is there anything you’d tell yourself?

AS: I was very concerned. I thought we should wait a year before we opened the shop, I thought we should delay the whole thing, because I thought it’d be too much with the wedding…

JK: Don’t start a business and have your wedding at the same time!

AS: Well, but here’s the thing, I can’t say I’d change a thing because it all worked out. The wedding went great, and the shop is going great. Was it hard? It was really hard. But it was awesome, it was a very intense, exciting time of our lives. And it’s still is. Although I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have nothing else to do.

HH: Where do you see yourselves in one year?

JK: We’ll still be here, and more people will know about who we are and what we do.

AS: We’ll be complaining about going to the post office everyday, because we’ll have to make so many shipments to our online customers. We’ll be even more seriously talking about the possibility of a bigger space in Dumbo for furniture and table settings, giving Moss a run for its money. No, I’m just kidding.

VI. Speakeasy, West Wing, Murakami and the heavenly mattress.

HH: Can you tell us about some tools you use to run your business? Where did you find this cool calculator?

calculator

JK: I found this at the MoMA design store, and I thought it compliments the Mac very well. When we were setting up the store, I didn’t want to give money to Verizon, and I did a ridiculous amount of research and found this one internet provider in California called Speakeasy (now part of Best Buy), and that took care of internet and phone. The quality has been great. I am very happy with their service. For charging credit cards, I found this company in Georgia called Take Charge, developed by Merchant Consulting Group. it’s hard to find POS system for Macs in general, unless you pay 2, 3 thousand dollars.

For the first few months of Greenjeans, we started off (charging credit cards) on the internet, through authorize.net. I found out that we’re getting all these charges. I asked them and they told me that it’s because we weren’t sliding the cards via the swiper, that we’re manually putting in the numbers. We’re paying 3 or 4% on top of everything. So I thought, forget it, this is not cool. So we went for this company in Georgia.

And we have this printer – it’s wireless. It has its own wireless capability, HP OfficeJet 7410. This was the top of the line all-in-one office jet at the time. And it wasn’t too expensive, about $500 a year and half ago.

AS: We bought our laptops (Mac Powerbooks) at the end of the old models, right after the new models were released. Just trying to find the right time to buy things.

Greenjeans

Shaker chairs made by Brian Braskie in Canterbury, New Hampshire.

HH: Ok. Now onto a couple of non-business questions: what are some books, movies, or TV shows you’re watching right now?

A: West Wing. I think it is very influential on our mentality, on how we handle situations. To think about conflict resolution, or to handle situations where someone wants to intimidate you. Really valuable.

JK: I just read Freakonomics. I thought it was helpful. It gives you a different perspective on things, or at least it tries to question your perceptions on every day life in general. I like those kind of books.

AS: I’m reading Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicles right now. And we also watch Frontline and Nova. Total PBS junkies. I like Sex and the City, and I read a lot of blogs – I love Grist and WorldChanging. For magazines, I read a lot of crafts stuff, Harper’s and the New Yorker.

HH: Last question: what are the three things you can’t live without?

JK: Three things, right? Water. Vodka. And great food.

AS: Sunlight – in my living space. I can’t live without our amazing mattress, made of Talalay Latex, which is heaven. We slept on this really crappy futon for years, and this mattress, which is expensive, was what we got ourselves as a wedding gift. And I would never go back. And… I don’t know… could be so many things. Ok, I’m going to say cartoons in New Yorker.

HH: Thank you for your time, Amy and Jae!

2 Comments

  1. extraface said about 2 hours later:

    I only recently discovered this blog, and am glad I did. All in all this interview was useful and interesting, but what about asking nuts and bolts questions like “how have you paid your own salaries during the ramp-up and early days?” And how did they get everything squared away financially to make this a full-time endeavor? Did they take any investment from angel-type investors/friends and family? Do they supplement their income with side work?

    There’s a growing set of data and anecdotes about how to take the plunge in starting your own web application startup(and some great panels at SXSW this year that addressed it), but I’d love to hear answers to some of those same questions as they relate to retail startups. And I bet I’m not alone.

    To me, that’s some of “the obvious, the common sense” that you allude to in your about page. But like I say, I’m new here.

  2. Amy Shaw said 14 days later:

    Good question. Not being in the usual positions of a) having spent our lives building a fortune as lawyers or investment bankers, or 2) being trust-fund babies, coming up with the capital to start Greenjeans required a lot of asking. We have enjoyed great support from our families, and without their generosity and understanding we would not have been able to do this. We also fully tapped into any personal savings we had. And after a year in business we qualified for an SBA loan.

    Our type of business isn’t as expensive to start as, say, a restaurant. We didn’t have to purchase any heavy equipment. We don’t have any employees. We do as much as possible in-house. So the front-end costs aren’t ridiculous.

    At the same time, because it normally takes a small business 3-5 years to become profitable, we knew we’d have to live as modestly as possible for a time, and so one way we’re managing is by keeping our expenses to a minimum. I also work as a freelance writer and editor to earn extra money.

    At the end of they day, though, we believe that if we stay true to our vision and continue to do the right thing, the money will find us. So far that’s been the case and, knock wood, hopefully that will continue.

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