The revitalization of Lower Manhattan would not have been possible without the dedication of residents who decided to stay long-term and help rebuild the area. DOWNTOWN Magazine interviewed two such leaders for its fall issue. This is what they had to say:
MISCHELLE ARCUS is a petite, soft-spoken woman in middle age who has a passion for handiwork. After initial struggles, her store, Stella, is now a decade old and a major success.
Stella opened a month after 9/11. What was that like?
I think I am a little naïve when it comes to things like that. I did not really realize the economic impact it would have. Everyone was in shock. You know, the mayor was saying to go back to work, send your children back to school, act normal, just keep moving. So that’s what we tried to do. I kept moving, cleaned up the store and just kept going. But, you know, it took awhile for it to really hit home what we went through. We went through so much down here.
Why did you decide to stick it out?
It’s not so easy just to fold all your cards and leave. I have a mortgage. I invested a ton of money into building the store. If you stop moving forward, then you lose everything. There wasn’t any other choice than to pick up the pieces and keep going.
What has it been like owning the store?
It’s what I always wanted to do. But it didn’t turn immediately into a successful store. I had to work on it. Retail isn’t the easiest thing to do. But in TriBeCa, we have really great people who come in. It’s a little community, so we know everybody. We have longtime customers. It’s like a tiny town and we get to help them.
To what do you attribute your success?
Hard work. Very hard work. But also, my sewing [ability]. If at any point, things weren’t going so well with the store—if I felt nervous at any point—I could always take on a sewing job. So I always had a backup. I had to do it after work and on Sundays, but I can do it at home, which makes it easier. And when it is sewing, it’s a whole apartment, so it’s a three to four month job.
How is your merchandise manufactured?
We try really hard not to have mass-produced products. Mass-produced things that you can get everywhere seems like such a shame because all that mass production is putting people out of work who have a history of hand embroidering. Mass production is going to kill generations of handwork. There’s craftsmanship [with the sheets], there’s a heritage and a community that’s kept alive by continuing these ways. It’s sad because the other option is to have a ton of stuff mass-produced by people who are not paid or treated well. The history of the way a product is made is lost when it’s mass-produced.
You speak poetically about the craftsmanship and artistry of the merchandise. How did that passion develop?
I’ve always made things. Ever since I was 7 years old, I’ve been sewing things. If I’m going to do it, I like to do it really well. You know, I talk to the people who make these things. I like to learn about why their product is special.
You recently moved from the original location (at 138 West Broadway). How did you find this new location (at 184 Duane Street)?
It was amazing. I knew I had to move at some point because my building was for sale. I was just walking by [this store] and there was a cellphone number on the window. I called it and within 10 minutes I had basically said, “Yes, I’ll buy the store.”
A condensed version of these interviews appears in the Fall 2012 issue of DOWNTOWN Magazine, on stands October 30.
To return the the Del Bryant interview, click here.