Fourteen Shops and Counting: An Entrepreneur for the New Brooklyn

Fourteen Shops and Counting: An Entrepreneur for the New Brooklyn
Loretta Gendville with her youngest son | Photo courtesy of Loretta Gendville

As Brooklyn’s wave of gentrification rolls on, some local business owners are trying to to keep from drowning. Others, like Loretta Gendville, are riding the wave.

Not that it is easy.

Tuesday, October 12, for example. For most of us it was  just another warm fall day, but for Gendville, the day began with two employees calling in sick and her youngest son fighting to go to soccer practice. She was stuck working her Area Play storefront in Carroll Gardens alone—while running her other 13 businesses.

At 43, Gendville is a local business whirlwind. She owns business all over Brooklyn, occupying 14 spaces in neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Williamsburg, Fort Greene, and Brooklyn Heights. Those businesses include a chain of retail stores for children and mothers, a hair salon for children, yoga studios, infrared saunas, a spa, a kids club, and a Gyrotonic exercise studio. She knows how to find Brooklyn’s new wave of young families with spending money.

She’s tall, slender, and active. Her dry-fit tank top paired with long black leggings and sneakers keeps her dressed to handle all of the events in the day: waking up at 6:00 a.m. for a cycling class, taking her children to school, and running her businesses. A Chicago native, she came to New York in 1994 and opened her first spa on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens the next year. She specialized in massages and facials, and back then was paying only $750 a month rent. “The building was decrepit,” she said. “It had been abandoned for ten years, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before the landlord sold the building.” Gendville began opening more businesses over the years. She credits a post 9/11 baby boom for much of her success. “There was a huge growth in the market for kids stuff then, a need for kids boutiques.” In 2002, down the street from her spa in Carroll Gardens, Gendville opened “Area Yoga and Baby,”  a retail store for yoga workout clothes and baby gifts. She later changed the name to “Mom and Baby” and began selling maternity and baby clothes.

Baby clothing is something she knows well, as Gendville is well-experienced in the family department. In the midst of opening all of her businesses she got pregnant three times. In 2003, she was carrying her daughter, who is now 14 . Her first son came along in 2008; he  is now 9. Her youngest, also a boy, arrived in 2012 and is five. By the end of her last pregnancy she had 11 businesses in Brooklyn. She got her start by financing herself through American Express and small private loans. “Even though I have a high limit with my American Express card, I have to pay it off every month,” she said.

She also strategically places her businesses in areas that she figures will gain a steady clientele. She concedes that gentrification plays to her favor, as the types of business she starts fit easily into the culture of the new people populating Brooklyn neighborhoods. Yet although she appears to have steady customers, she says she still faces fierce competition from online shopping. “People like my daughter don’t know what it’s like to shop in stores,” she said. “Online shopping is hurting businesses all over.” Gentrification also has a side effect: rising rents. Gendville foresees the social experience—going to the store, picking out a toy or some other item, and buying it—being compromised because of increased rent prices.

Gendville employs some 30 people across all of her businesses. For now, she says she isn’t interested in opening any new storefronts, but she is tweaking some of the old ones. Her newest endeavor is in her Area Sweat venue in Park Slope, at 45 5th Avenue. Gendville’s corner commercial space stands out in bold red with portraits of women painted by Molly Crabapple, a well-known Brooklyn artist. On the inside, she has opened an infrared sauna, a form of sauna that is increasingly popular. “I experienced an infrared sauna in Manhattan and loved it, but it could’ve been improved,” she says. ”Mine are a lot more spacious.” Area Sweat has morphed more than once through the years. It was formerly one of her retail stores for children, then became a yoga studio. Her landlord made the space behind the studio available, so Gendville moved the yoga studio there and Area Sweat became Brooklyn’s first infrared communal sauna. She didn’t even have to change the name.

She installed four infrared sauna machines, two per room. The sauna has two glass doors that open into a square, wooden room about 6 feet high and 8 feet wide, with two benches fixed alongside the wall. Each machine is priced around $7,000-$8,000 according to Area Sweat’s manager, Kathy Graxirena. The saunas were opened to the public in late July, and Graxirena says she was challenged to learn the science behind them.

Still, Graxirena seemed to know her way around the tablet-controlled sauna machines on a recent visit. She points out that each session can be tailored to target the specific needs of a person—detoxing, relaxation, pain relief, cardiovascular effects, weight loss, and so forth, all from a dry heat from the infrared lights embedded along the walls and covered with a thin, perforated film. Two tablets are fixed into the wall. Graxirena programs one for the machine, but the other is left to the customer to control his or her music, via Pandora. The customer even has control over the color of the lights that illuminate from the ceiling.

While Gendville says her infrared saunas in Area Sweat look to be a success, her Kids Club space in Carroll Gardens, dedicated to birthday parties and other kids activities, isn’t doing so well. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it. I’m thinking of reformatting it into a vegan food business,” she said. As her children grow up, her healthy lifestyle might be the focus of how she transforms her businesses in the future. “I’m looking to move into being more health related and less retail,” she said. “More yoga, spa, and vegan food. Retail doesn’t interest me as much.”

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