How one Harlem shop owner is making it through the pandemic

A local store with a national following works to reimagine the customer experience

Princess Jenkins began her career as a fashion industry intern for Vera Maxwell in New York City’s Garment District in the late 1970s. She went on to sell fashion collections to retailers in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles — at the time one of the few Black women selling top designer fashion. Jenkins now owns The Brownstone in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, an upscale fashion boutique that calls itself “Harlem’s crown jewel.”

Jenkins spoke with NRF about the challenges she has faced as a small business owner, operating in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the continued cries for social change.

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How did you get into fashion?

I felt encouraged to step into the fashion industry after seeing Diana Ross in the movie “Mahogany.” That movie helped me to shape my career. And she’s welcome to come visit The Brownstone any time.

What’s the story behind the name “The Brownstone”?

I moved to Harlem after seven years of operating a retail store in Brooklyn. I saw how beautifully dressed all the women were there, but I could never find the stores they were shopping in. Then, I realized that the women who live in Harlem were all leaving Harlem and going to shop at Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s. That’s when I asked myself: Why not open something that people would stay home for? So, we opened The Brownstone by taking a turn-of-the-century brownstone building and turning it into what I call the first African American department store.

How are you defining a department store?

Well, we were on Fifth Avenue. We had big wooden doors. You had to ring a bell to come in. Customers walked into a parlor that we turned into a boutique. It had high ceilings and fireplaces and it even had the original stained glass.

We added a day spa. We added a restaurant. We opened two hair salons. We added fine jewelry, too. You’d come in and go to the floor you wanted, just like in a department store. I was there for 10 years, but then the landlord died and the family sold the brownstone. It’s not like we could easily find another three-story brownstone that we could afford to rent.

So, you went looking for a new location?

Yes. I had clientele and a following. It was just a matter of where I wanted to relocate. I decided to stay in Harlem and found a place on 125th between Fifth and Madison Avenue. It’s 850 square feet of retail space with a full basement and a beautiful backyard.

We added beautiful wood floors, chandeliers, lots of warm colors and antique furniture and we made it work. Once you step inside, you feel like you stepped into someone’s living room.

What’s your niche?

My store is for plus-sized women. The average woman is sized 14. I made it a point to service her in a fashionable way. When a customer walks in, they say, “I finally found a store where everything fits me.”

Brownstone boutique in Harlem

Who are your customers?

I’m a local store with a national following. Last weekend, I had people come in the store from Connecticut. They called me before coming to town and made an appointment. Before COVID-19, we had many international travelers in here.

But the new reality is COVID-19. How has that impacted your business?

It came out of the blue. I had wonderful plans for this year. I was booked to appear at the Essence Music Festival and at Harlem Week, which bring thousands of people to the area. I thought I was going to take our business up 15 to 20 percent this year.

And then?

COVID-19 shut down everything. Besides this store, my husband and I own a barbershop/hair salon. we had to close everything and had no source of income. We are dual family entrepreneurs and our basic bills kept coming in. Luckily, I’d had a good year, so we had a little financial security.

What happened to your employees?

I had myself, one other employee and a guy who runs our production department. Everyone was furloughed. It wasn’t about money. It was a health crisis. This city was a ghost town. We shut the store in mid-March and didn’t reopen until mid-June, so we were closed for three months.

What did you do during this time?

I initially used the time to come in and do maintenance that I’d been putting off. I painted some things. I got my garden refreshed and I’m looking to change our sign and update it. It’s all about preparing for when customers come back so we look fresh. Do what you can on the cheap. I also spent time applying for loans.

How much is business off since you reopened?

We may be at about one-third to one-quarter of what we should be right now. Nobody is here. I’m across from a school and the school is closed. I’m in the middle of a commercial zone but everyone is working from home. There are so many beautiful restaurants near here, but no one wants to go out to eat right now. Even the movie theater is closed.

What have you changed?

We had to cut back our hours. We’re no longer open on Sundays. I’ve let people know we’re on social media and asked people to buy gift certificates. We also have established an ecommerce website. I know I need to make the website primary instead of secondary. The question is, how do I move the warm friendliness of The Brownstone onto a website?

And the answer is?

We’re working on some videos that feature me talking to my customers. We want to create a “welcome” video that opens the moment someone goes to the website. We also just did a photoshoot to show what’s new in the store. We’ll do Facebook Live and Instagram Live.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from COVID-19?

It’s so important for a small business owner to put away some savings when things are going well. Always have a backup plan and always create cashflow.

How have you been impacted by the Black Lives Matter movement?

I have not yet seen the extent of how that will impact our business. We have to make our own changes by sticking with the African American community in order to directly impact the community. On several occasions I’ve taken in young kids without resumes and let them work for me after school. They use me as a reference and get experience so they can go to college. This sort of stuff isn’t written in a book. It isn’t a heroic act. It’s about encouraging young people.

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