By Caroline Benveniste
Every month, we report openings and closings in the neighborhood, and recently, I have received letters from readers alerting me to some that I’ve missed. This month, we were inundated with emails about the closing of Leo Design at 543 Hudson Street. Everyone who wrote was quite upset, with one reader suggesting that it merited an article. After conducting a bit of research, we agreed.
Leo Design opened 22 years ago at 413 Bleecker Street. In 1995, Bleecker Street was very different than it is today, and Leo Design, a gift shop of sorts with an eclectic mix of ceramics, vintage jewelry, decorative items and more, fit in well with its offbeat neighbors (a bird store, The Paris Commune, a store that sold animation cels, etc.). By the early 2000s, things were changing on Bleecker with the arrival of upscale stores known in every fancy shopping mall. Unlike the previous generation of stores, these new shops used their Bleecker Street locations for advertising purposes, rather than to make money. In the process, they drove up the rents to new heights.
When I spoke with Kimo Jung, the owner of Leo Design, he explained that, for these stores, the rent was equivalent to a full-page ad in the New York Times. In 2010, Leo’s landlady refused to even discuss renewing the lease, no doubt having already negotiated with NARS, which was seeking a location for their New York flagship store. As a result, Leo was forced to move to a new location on Hudson Street. Kimo was mostly happy with the move. While Hudson did not have as much charm as Bleecker, the store was a bit larger, and there was a similar amount of foot traffic. Moreover, he felt that the quality of the traffic was better, with more locals and fewer tourists. With the larger store, the mix of products also changed. Initially, he had stocked mostly contemporary items, but, over time, he added antiques so the store became about one-third contemporary and two-thirds antiques; the sales were split almost evenly between the two.
While many say they like to have small businesses in their neighborhood, the reality is that they must be willing to pay the premium associated with shopping at independent stores. With the prevalence and convenience of online shopping, many are now less likely to patronize their local businesses. In addition, some demographic changes are taking place in the Village. Kimo noticed that when he first opened, the brownstones in the surrounding streets had up to three families living in them. More recently, many have transitioned back to single-family homes for wealthy people who use them as pieds–à–terre, thereby reducing the number of potential customers. Another emerging trend is that young people are less willing to spend on objects and prefer to pay for experiences. All of these factors combined to make the last two years a bit of a struggle for Kimo and Leo Design.
Kimo does not blame his landlord this time, however. He is just not able to make enough money from the store to cover his expenses. After the store closes on January 31st, Kimo will continue to sell privately to regulars, and will pursue his interior design trade business. Leo Design will still be present on the internet: The website is LEOdesignNYC.com and the Instagram handle is @leodesignhandsomegifts. The only positive aspect is that with lower overhead, prices will be lower too. And who knows: While Kimo has no plans to re-open a physical store at the moment, he is not ruling out that possibility for the future.