NiLu, A Lenox Avenue Tale

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Why We Started, How We Survived, and the Reason We Always Bet on Ourselves

Customers always ask what the story is beyond our, “About Us.”  So we decided that it was finally time to open up and share our journey with you and anyone crazy enough to want to start a small retail business.

Our thoughts of having a gift shop actually began when we sold Katrina Parris Flowers. 

Katrina was running the flower shop one hand tied behind her back raising two boys, while I did well as an IT consultant.  It was all demanding, stressful and taxing physically and mentally…and we knew we needed a change.  During the sell, the buyer explained that they wanted our e-commerce business and “A - list” client lists, but didn’t want to operate our store in Harlem.  They didn’t see the opportunities there in the same way we had. 

We had been in Harlem for close to 25 years at this point, literally living around the corner from where we operated our flower business - the space which now houses NiLu. It sits right on Lenox Avenue - one of the most beautiful streets in the city. Double and triple wide sidewalks, green bench lined spaces, iconic brownstones and churches all within the historic district of Mt Morris / Marcus Garvey Park. 

At the time we were feeling the community’s gentrification with both its positives and negatives, and realized we needed a space to truly represent Harlem - past, present, and future.  If we didn’t, it would disappear as gentrification evolved.

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We felt the need to to help preserve our culture, make an impact, and continue our entrepreneurship journey…but how?

Katrina was always a good gift giver, and as a young family with kids at the time, you're constantly being invited to birthday parties, cookouts and housewarmings.  We didn't want to come empty handed or bring a random bottle or gift card. But we were regularly reminded that there wasn’t a place to easily shop for anything else, outside of Dee’s Cards back in the day, with Gramma’ Place and an old school party/balloon store along Lenox Ave. 

In essence Harlem was a gifting desert.  Options were a .99 cent stores, independent bookstores and big box retailers. We saw a need to provide accessible curated quality gifting in our community, and went for it. 

We didn’t want another Dunkin Donuts or Subway taking up more space.  So we acted without a business plan and flipped the flower shop storefront into NiLu. We knew foot traffic was low in our chosen location, compared to 125th and 8th ave., but we still felt it was the right fit – in the heart of the community. 

Now, no doubt the initial three years were a grind as we struggled to let people know we existed. 

During the buildout, people stuck their heads in asking what was coming and we said a gift shop. Most people looked at us with three heads.  They had hoped we'd be a food or bar spot instead.  We then discovered people didn’t know what NiLu meant and didn’t realize it was black owned even, so they would walk right by.  The name was weird, but we believed it would eventually catch on and people would love that it meant our two boys’ names combined - Nigel and Luke.  

[NiLu Night Picture|

Katrina always had a vision though…one that would create a space where people could take a pause from their crazed life and come in and discover really dope findings that spoke from the heart. 

So we did what we could to make it happen.  We added, “Harlem’s Gift Store” to our logo which helped make a difference. We purchased just enough merchandise to create a presence, even at times when it felt skimpy inside.  

We had the hard decision of making big bets or continuing to test merchandise knowing the store would be light on inventory.  Actually, we broke every retail rule with color selection, merchandising and customer service.  We wanted a space that tapped all the sensors and made black and brown people feel welcomed and accepted – without judgment. 

…And it was working, until after the second year when scaffolding surrounded our business which was deemed the kiss of death. Operating in an historical and beautiful building also meant scrutiny from the city’s building department.   We knew the iron monster would stay up for at least 1-3 years.  So we went into combat mode and changed our message to “Harlem’s NEW Gift Shop”.   We placed this on a banner that wrapped around the scaffolding - making it visible blocks away. 

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The scaffolding did end up staying and impacted our business, but Luke Cage saved us. Yeah…Harlem’s fictional superhero saved us in real life. Netflix’ Luke Cage series was filmed down the block which meant our ugly banner was featured on the show.  People came looking for the Luke Cage barbershop and were curious about NiLu.  We tried to turn lemons into lemonade, and thanks to our community and Luke Cage we started to grow.

Even after that, we still were advised to move to 125th street for more business and foot traffic. But, after 2+ years the scaffolding finally came down.  

It was November of 2019 and we had a stellar holiday season, only for the pandemic to shut it all down months after.  But we stayed strong…betting on ourselves, the local community and the beliefs of our brand. We build it right – they will come. We continued to build.

Stay tuned to hear more of the good, bad and ugly.


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