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“Liberation Capitalism”
Published: June 5, 2005
The New York Times

FOR one woman, all it took was waking up one morning and deciding that she absolutely did not want to go to her job in telecommunications that day. For another, it was the murder of a best friend that prompted her to start a new business. For another, it was an ''if not now, when?'' moment when her string of jobs as a bartender paled in comparison to her love of watercolor painting.

And for most of an emerging group of women in their 20's and 30's, the decision to open their own businesses here has been liberating, the cause for anything but regret.

At least seven small businesses owned by young women have opened or changed hands in the last five years, and the group believes their businesses are revitalizing this riverfront city of more than 39,000 residents -- with more than its share of bars and restaurants -- giving it a stronger hometown feel.

This is especially important as rents on the main drag, Washington Street, rise along with the number of vacancies.

''Washington Street is becoming overrun with stores like Cingular, Nextel, Verizon and Washington Mutual, all people who can afford the rent, but don't necessarily have the business coming in to pay the rent,'' said Patricia Scribner, 29, owner of Patricia's Yarns, in the basement of 728 Washington Street.

Rachel Seiffert, 26, who opened Shoeuphoria at 204 Hudson Street last month, noted that many Manhattan residents are moving to Hoboken to raise families. ''To them, this is the suburbs,'' she said. ''They're looking for a city where everything is convenient.''

Small businesses like hers add more charm to the city than chain stores could, she said.

''You have nooks and crannies that you know and remember, that you identify with, and you click with an individual working at the store,'' Ms. Seiffert said. ''People like human contact and interaction, and we create that in town.''

The perception that Hoboken was becoming more family-oriented led Maria DeCeglie-Borella, 28, to open Bellie & Katrina, a store for maternity clothing and children's wear on Fourth Street three years ago, when she noticed a near-epidemic of pregnant women.

''I love watching my little idea grow into something bigger than I could ever imagine,'' Ms. DeCeglie-Borella said. Now that she is expecting a child, her customers are rallying around her.

''I also love how I get to know the woman while she's pregnant, and watching the baby grow,'' she said. ''All of my customers are like a family to me.''

Heather Smith, 27, who owns Little Monster Portraits -- featuring watercolor portraits, primarily of children -- was also spurred to start her company after seeing the changing demographics of Hoboken. She started pursuing her art full time in November, after working as a bartender at various places in town for almost 10 years.

''There are children everywhere in this town,'' Ms. Smith said.

Two years ago, Neeta Chitre-King, 40, opened Aaraa, a home furnishings and accessories store on Washington Street (its name translates from Urdu as the verb ''to embellish, to adorn, to decorate'') because she wanted to provide high-quality imports from her native India. She enjoys Hoboken's young shoppers, who are always looking for variety.

''Most of the crowd here is not looking for mall shopping, luckily for me,'' Ms. Chitre-King said.

After careers in advertising and in software, she decided to open her own business. She said she and other female business owners often refer customers to one another.

''The few I know are always very helpful,'' Ms. Chitre-King said, adding that she tries not to carry items similar to those in other stores to avoid any unfriendly competition.

The women also help one another out with the kinds of advice new store owners need.

''We'll say 'Where'd you get your latest sign from?' or 'I'm having trouble with my bank,''' said Ms. Scribner, who owns the yarn shop. She has relied on her peers to figure out how to treat merchants' holidays like the day after Thanksgiving, and what shopping bags to use.

Ms. Seiffert was encouraged to open her store after watching other young women do so.

''Seeing other ladies opening up their businesses inspired me to open up a store,'' she said.

She has decorated the store with antique chairs, a reproduction wooden bar from eBay, an essential-oil burner and a guest book, now full of comments like ''Please call when orange shoes come in'' and ''Great addition to Hoboken.''

On Sundays, Ms. Seiffert serves wine and her home-baked goodies. ''We all compete with online people and chain stores, and I just wanted to create that personal touch,'' she said.

The women have to battle the occasional customer who cannot understand that the young face behind the counter actually belongs to the owner.

''I'm doing what's called a grandma's hobby,'' Ms. Scribner said, surveying her homemade shelves of skeins of luxuriant yarn. ''People come in and think that I'm the help. They can be really condescending, really rude, and then they find out I'm the owner.''

Other prejudices come into play, said Erin Weed, 27, who runs Girls Fight Back, a national traveling women's self-defense teaching program that operates in high schools, colleges and in Hoboken. She started the business four years ago after one of her best friends was murdered on the campus of Eastern Illinois University. She was living in Hoboken, doing television production work when she decided to change gears.

Ms. Weed explained that she is in a business full of former police officers and marines in their 40's and 50's.

''People say, 'You're 27, and you have enough experience to teach me to prevent violence?''' she said.

Courtney Schindelar, 36, owns House Wear at Seventh Street and Willow Avenue, a vintage furniture and gift store she took over from a colleague five years ago.

''There's a preconceived notion that if you run a small store, you come from money, or you have a rich husband,'' Ms. Schindelar said. ''I took my 401k to start my business. People think it's just a little hobby, and it's really not. I'm making a career of it.'' It's one she prefers to her former job at Avaya Telecommunications.

''I was toying with consulting work,'' she said. ''But I can't bring my dog.''

She said she loves going antiquing with her mother as part of her job.

''Now I'm on the road twice a week auctioning,'' she said. ''It's a bright summer day and I'm driving.''

Ms. Schindelar needs to be at the store when customers needs her, she said, ''but over all it's empowering.''

Photos: Erin Weed founded Girls Fight Back after a friend of hers was murdered.; Maria DeCeglie-Borella runs Bellie & Katrina, which specializes in maternity wear and children's clothes. (Photographs by Keith Meyers/The New York Times)



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