For every East Village business that’s opening or closing, dozens are quietly making it. Here’s one of them: Downtown Yarns.
Before she started teaching people to knit, Rita Bobry owned a flower shop, but ultimately she found that the business was no bed of roses. “You have to deliver flowers. There are so many deadlines. There is a lot of stress and pressure,” she said. She sold the store and spent some time working for somebody else, until she decided she wanted to be her own boss again, partly to spend time with her new puppy, Frankie. The knitting enthusiast discovered a vacant space at 45 Avenue A and opened Downtown Yarns at 45 Avenue A. Eleven years later, she says she made the right choice, especially since her landlord still keeps her 300-square-foot space affordable.
I’ve walked down this block and never realized you were here. Given the possibility of others overlooking your charming little yarn shop, how do you think you’ve been able to make it all these years?
We have a fair rent. We don’t have to struggle to meet our rent. I keep my expenses low so I can pay the rent and I can actually save money.
I’d imagine a business based on knitting is probably more of a winter and fall seasonal business.
We’re busy from about October to February and then it’s kind of downhill from there. We have to make make our year in those months.
What was your rent when you opened eleven years ago, and how much is it now?
I think we started at $1,400 and now it’s up to about $2,000.
Why do you think your landlord has been able to be so fair to you?
Well, I live in the building. But that’s not really it and it’s not just me who has fair rent. If you look at the stores here on this block, many have it similar.
A lot of stores have closed on this street as well, though.
A major pet peeve of mine are the stores that are owned by the city that have been empty, some of them for four years now. It’s sort of like, OK, they’re not wanting bars coming in, so then they have to lower the rent if they’re not going to have a bar in there. I agree we shouldn’t have all bars in the neighborhood. I live in the neighborhood and want to be able to sleep at night. But if you want a different kind of business in the neighborhood, you can’t charge the kind of rents that they are charging. I think it’s as simple as that. We are the ones that make the community, the community.
There are also plenty of people now who seem happy to have some of the conveniences of corporate chains.
Places like mine, that are small and unique, are some of why people come and want to live here in New York. They like to find places like mine and not just be limited to a Subway or a bank. I think the people in this building all realize that. If you look at the stores here, I think most of us smaller businesses in the building are being charged fair rates.
Do you do anything made-to-order?
We do some custom stuff, but not really. Generally what we do is try to encourage people to do this themselves. That’s what we’re here to do. We want people to use their hands to balance their lives from all the time they spend at the computer. People are dealing with stress, Carpal Tunnel, and whatever else happens when you sit in an office and in front of a computer all day. Our classes are reasonable, too, at $25 a class.
For those of us who don’t know anything about yarn, what would you say that you carry that is most interesting?
We try to do Fair Trade things. We try to buy from small companies. We try to have things be artisanal and personal. All the yarns have a story in a way. One of my favorites is from Jane Harmon. She lives in Vermont so it’s kind of local. She dyes the yarn with vegetable dyes and then she plies it by hand. It’s very handmade which is unusual in this day and age.
How do you find these purveyors?
I find them over time through sales reps. I am working with hundreds of people to bring in yarns.
What has been your best year in the knitting business?
Our best year was maybe two or three years after we opened, like 2003, 2004. There was this knitting craze that just happened. It was insane. We had lines out the door. It was completely beyond what I ever would have imagined. On the weekend we would have people lined up around the corner. Our classes had waiting lists. I had to have classes in my apartment. Now, it’s leveled out. Now, it’s kind of what I expected. It’s a mellow, nice, not a get-rich-fast kind of lifestyle.
So you plan on staying here a while?
I plan on staying. It’s a good lifestyle for me. No stress. It’s a nice thing for the neighborhood that it’s here. My motto is not to work on the weekend. We have six or seven people who work here, but we always have just two people here every day. That way no one gets overwhelmed or overworked.