Helen Nurse; Tracy Chambers Vintage
Words: Molly Hays & Photos: Jacklyn Greenberg for JAG Studios
Many a woman working from home soon finds her professional life elbowing in on her dining room. Rare, though, is the entrepreneur that converts her dining room into a retail space, sets regular business hours, and opens her home up to the public. Meet Helen Nurse, founder and proprietress of New York’s Tracy Chambers’ Vintage, determined, creative, and yes, rare.
In early 2012, Nurse spied a market gap in affordable vintage clothing, and so set out to rent a storefront. Only to learn that rents in her Brooklyn neighborhood were sky-high. Beyond-reach sky-high. Most aspiring entrepreneurs would’ve shelved their idea as unfeasible and moved on. But rare and most have little in common. Nurse redoubled her efforts, revisited her options, and arrived at an elegant, if unconventional solution.
In March of that year, Nurse did, in fact, open a vintage clothing boutique, very close to home. In her home, actually. In her former dining room, specifically.
Talk about working from home.
Helen credits her grandmother with her lifelong love of vintage. “My grandmother didn’t have very much money; she had just a few things. But the quality of her clothing was amazing. Every time she went out, she looked impeccable.”
Fast forward a few decades, and here is Helen Nurse, mom to three young kids, former Event Planner, fashion-aficionado, and enterprising eye which sees both the value in that storied craftsmanship, and the demand for vintage that fits Everywoman. “I choose vintage based on real women’s bodies,” she explains, an exercise in editorial purchasing that yields styles women can actually wear.
She started small, testing the waters, selling her collection at street fairs on weekends. The response was good; the reality, not so much. With young children aged 3, 2 and 1, the hours and impact weren’t worth it. The seed, however, had been sowed. And the concept, proven.
And so, caught between prohibitive rents and family demands, Nurse paved herself a third way. Noting how many brownstones in her neighborhood already sported ground floor businesses, Nurse pitched the idea of transforming their little-used, street-level dining room into retail space. Her executive board—a.k.a., her family—assented. Tracy Chambers’ Vintage, named after Diana Ross’ enterprising, ambitious, impeccably dressed character in Mahogany, was off and running.
(Never mind that those other brownstone offices held doctors and lawyers. Appointment-based services. Established clientele affairs. Retail wasn’t really done out of brownstones. Not yet, anyway. Pioneers have to start somewhere. Also, the parallels between Nurse and Chambers extend well beyond fashion.)
All of the Above
So what does it look like, exactly, when kids and customers exist under the same roof? In the beginning, when the children were small; the routine, not yet established; “it was a MESS!” Kids came and went during business hours. Helen craved a professional atmosphere. It didn’t always happen. “I was stressed.”
In time, ground rules were laid, children grew, and perhaps most importantly, Helen relaxed, realizing that her best customers not only didn’t mind the blurred line between work and family, but instead, welcomed it. “Everyone knows that the kids are in back, that it is what it is. It doesn’t really bother anyone.”
Indeed, the intimate, familiar atmosphere of her shop is core to Nurse’s success. “I model my business after the local barber, talking trash, talking sports. But instead, we talk about men, about hair, about kids. I always have a little wine, a little tea. It’s a great relief to them, and me.” As she declares on her web site, “Step into my parlour and you have entered a ladies only zone (LOZ) where we talk style, womanness, and being our badass selves.” Is Tracy Chambers Vintage a shop? A tea room? A friend’s couch? Cheers? All of the above. And, it turns out, all the better for it. Nurse’s necessity-driven location became a cornerstone to her success.
Not just at work, but at home. Let’s talk unintended benefits. The demands of business ownership meant Helen was less available as chauffeur, cook, housekeeper, gopher. Did the family fall apart? Read on. “They have become so independent! They do their own laundry. They cook for themselves. If it weren’t for Tracy Chambers Vintage, I’d still be doing for them! That has been a huge upside.” Nurse still dedicates Mondays to errands and other household management tasks, a policy which keeps work and home life sane. And an upside of entrepreneurship.
What’s more? The unexpected upsides of seeing mom, hard at work, up close. “They see me teaching myself as I go. That launching a new project takes months. That it takes perseverance. It’s a great lesson.”
Indeed, Helen’s 12-year-old daughter has proved a fine pupil. She serves as Tracy Chambers’ Creative Director, styling shoots and taking “great” photos. Win-win, again. “It’s helping her develop (that skill set), and I need the help!” What’s more, inspired by her role-model mother, this not-yet-teenager is starting her own small business selling, you guessed it, vintage t-shirts. Keep your eyes peeled for The Vintage Tween.
Which isn’t to say it’s all been smooth sailing. Retail is a fickle thing, even under conventional circumstances. Nurse’s niche, home-based, highly curated, means “I work out of my home, so its a major challenge, getting people to know who I am and what I do.”
Also, there’s the 24/7 thing. Going in, Nurse expected to have a work schedule, clear-cut, contained. “Wrong. SO wrong.” Retail entails everything from pricing to dusting, and 427 tasks in between. The shop’s tasks tend to seep into Nurse’s days, all the more easily for its proximity.
Also, the inevitable retail lulls are amplified, when home is next door. Tracy Chambers Vintage opens Thursdays through Sundays, the same set hours, week after week. This consistency means customers never have to guess when and whether they can shop. By the same token, “Just because I’m open, it doesn’t mean (customers are) going to come. Was it worth not going to the park (with my family) when it’s 75 degrees, to make $50? It’s tough math. I’ve had to learn to love the process.”
But love it, she does, long hours notwithstanding. “I still love what I do. That is my definition of success.” Business success is following. Ever-creative, perpetually open-minded, Nurse continues to innovate.
Every month, she holds Tracy Tastings, with wine, music, girlfriends, and of course, shopping. She hosts networking events, cross-merchandising with fellow female entrepreneurs. Tapping into the buzz of fashion week, she held a cocktails and cinema week this fall, screening fashion-themed films in her backyard, to foster community and, secondarily, spur sales. “I use my ENTIRE space to create opportunities.”
Social media has also opened up huge new doors to this tiny shop. Nurse masterfully blends modern and vintage, leveraging Facebook to broadcast special sales and decidedly old-school, in-person get-togethers. Similarly, she’s found, through trial and error, how to expand her market, from the four walls of her dining room, to the world. “Instagram has taken my business to a whole new level. All I have to do is put up a picture and a price and a size, and people will buy it. I was slow coming to social media, but now, I am all over it.”
But in the end, Nurse comes back, time and again, to community. “Community first, retail second.” She speaks passionately about the non-profit she founded, She Better Mind Her Business (SBMHB), to encourage other mothers toward entrepreneurship through micro-grants. She’s working on a fashion-themed, small-group trip to Paris, led by Nurse herself. And come Spring, she plans to launch the Brian Walker line, a curated collection of vintage clothing for men.
And how will those dapper duds mingle with the existing line-up of blouses and bags? They won’t. “Men don’t shop like women, every week. They’ll shop once or twice a year. They do an efficient, surgical strike.” The Walker line will be pure pop-up, “spring and fall sports events in the backyard, basketball, cigars, cognac.” Once again, Nurse knows her customers, their needs, their wishes, their comforts and habits. And again, as always, Nurse will build a market by building community, knowing her customers, and welcoming them, warmly and graciously, right into that rarest of places, a shop that feels just like home.