Owners in Training

Photo: Vincent Dilio

Retail Résumé
In the seventies, Marjorie Stern had three stores, all called Pizazz, which sold kitschy T-shirts and, at her Bleecker Street location, gifts like a doll called Gay Bob (he came boxed in a closet). Business was great for twelve years. Then there was a holdup at the Lexington Avenue Pizazz and a suicide— a bereft jumper landed in the doorway the day John Lennon was shot. Burned out, Stern sold the leases and worked with her husband, who produced fragrances for Oscar de la Renta. They sold the business to Avon in 1987, and with a portion of the proceeds started Big Wood foundation to support kid-centric causes like a charter elementary school in the Bronx.

A Retail Epiphany
But Stern missed her stores. In 2005 she dreamed up a way to merge retail with her Big Wood mission: Open a children’s store and staff it with teenagers from the Children’s Aid Society. C.A.S. would receive 100 percent of the store’s profits. The kids would get $8 an hour from Big Wood, but more importantly, they’d learn the business.

A Store Is Born
After a two-year search for a location with mommy traffic and reasonable rent, Stern found a tiny former one-hour photo shop “in hideous shape” around the corner from the Children’s Museum. She got $20 bookcases at IKEA and lighting equipment from Canal Street ($1,200). An architect friend planned the space for half her usual fee.

Staffing Up
C.A.S. figured they’d get a handful of interested candidates; they got 80. Last May, Stern held a retail-training boot camp. What do you do with a demanding client? (Remain polite.) What if a rambunctious toddler tries to tear the place apart? (Sit down with the kid and a book.) “Even if they don’t stay in retail,” says Stern, “I figured they’ll learn how to deal with people.”

A Group Effort
The store opened in July, to an empty city. When the first customer came in she says, “we took a picture.” Ideas came fast. Maria, 23, suggested adding more clothing. Stanley, 19, offered to play guitar on weekends. They started the month doing $300 a day and ended at $600. A verbally abusive neighbor accused them of stealing his business. Stern took the kids to file a police complaint, saying, “When you’re an entrepreneur, it’s your responsibility to make it work.”

Up Next
Stern’s goal is to do $2,000 a day during the last quarter of the year, and to see her program expanded by national retailers. This month, the first fourteen staffers “graduated.” “It’s a small store,” she says. “The problem now is, no one wants to leave.”

A Time for Children
506 Amsterdam Ave., nr. 85th St. 212-580-8202.

Owners in Training