Monday, February 9, 2009
Andrea Waller founded Seaport Yarn
(181 Broadway Fifth Floor (use the elevator)
New York, NY 10007 phone:1-800-347-2662)
in 2002 inside an apartment building that housed her market research company. The building was residential, so she was not allowed to post any advertisement or even signs inside or outside of the building for people to find her. What a way to start a business! "In the beginning," Andrea said, "things were kind of crazy. We had all the yarn in the different offices where we were doing our market research." This reminds me of a remark by one of my husband’s friends, who said he worked for a "drinking firm with a consulting problem." Andrea had a market research company with a yarn problem :-) ; these days it’s more like a knitting store with a market research problem. Although Andrea maintains some high end market research clients like Mayor Bloomberg (“we did some work for the Bloomberg campaign”), she now houses her yarn shop in a properly zoned building, on the fifth floor, with lots of space and shelves and shelves of yarn; one entire wall is dedicated to sock yarn alone.
Andrea is no stranger to hard times. She was profoundly affected by September 11th. Her business has always been near the World Trade Center, now Ground Zero. While I was at her store, a fire truck drove by outside, siren blaring. “Do you smell smoke?” Andrea asked, looking around alarmed. She quickly apologized. “Since 2001, my sense of smell is off. I constantly think I am smelling smoke. It makes me so nervous.” I experienced Andrea as a very compassionate person who cares deeply about people who struggle, although she was quick to tell me that some people consider her difficult (“I just have a low tolerance for people who are rude, so I am rude right back”).
Andrea makes it a point to support small businesses: a spinner who is just starting out, a small company selling a yarn no one has heard of… If she likes the quality, she’ll buy it and sell it in her shop. She’ll even give business advice. She told one spinner to name all her yarns after smells because her company name conjured up the smell of pine. “When I got the first package from her after that conversation, I unpacked the yarn and thought I smelled something. She had actually put some coffee and some vanilla in the package. We were all just sitting there sniffing… :-)” Andrea loves strange and obscure yarns. She carries buffalo, yak, milk- and corn yarn (see my blog entry on January 13th for details). She’ll try out any gadget that strikes her, like Kollage’s square knitting and crocheting needles (mentioned in Vogue Knitting’s most recent issue). Knitwear designers can order yarn through her at a discount. “It’s not wholesale, but I try to give them a break on the price.” But it's also fun to hang out with her. Andrea is a treasure trove of information and she loves to share it. After nearly two hours of chatting about yarns, downtown, and life in New York, I finally asked Andrea my seven (or rather eight) questions:
Me: When did you start your business?
Andrea: I’ve been in this area on and off since 1997, but I started the yarn store in 2002.
Me: What made you choose this location?
Andrea: I stayed downtown because I had been here already. I thought having a yarn store down here would bring some business into an area that needed it, but I also thought it would give people who work down here a chance to go somewhere for their lunch break and relax. We are right around the corner from Century 21 and down the street from J+R computers. I thought people would be able to combine errands. You can go and shop for electronics and then come and sit on our comfy couch.
Me: Who is your staff?
Andrea: Lauren has been here 6 months and Susan and Claire 4-5 years. I have some online partners, LaJuana, John (who played bass guitar with David Bowie), and “Little John”, who is also a rock musician. They work in Portland and maintain the website. We still do market research, just a lot less, and we sell a lot more yarn now.
Me: What do you look for when you buy yarn?
Andrea: I look for quality versus price. I search for unique things, things that I don’t see every day. I carry Debbie Bliss, Blue Sky Alpaca, Punta Del Este, but also Pinewood, Blue Heron (a small hand-dyer from Maryland), and Kollage…
Me: What kind of classes do you teach?
Andrea: We teach beginning, intermediate, and advanced beginner classes. We have a sock class. Most of our classes are at night. Our classes are taught by Claire and Naomi (both ex-presidents of the Big Apple Knitters Guild).
Me: Who knits your store samples?
Andrea: Our staff, although some of the yarn companies send store samples.
Me: What made you open a yarn store?
Andrea: I learned how to knit from my grandmother when I was a kid. I’ve been doing it ever since. I just love it.
Me: How do you think the recession is affecting people?
Andrea: I think people are finally getting to their stashes. People are making more things and giving hand-made presents to save money. A lot of people can’t afford expensive luxury items.
Ooops! I realized I was running late to pick my daughter from pre-k, so I grabbed a pair of square needles and some Pinewood silk and wool yarn and jumped in the subway to head up to Harlem.