When you first step into the store you are hit with a variety of sounds and smells. If it’s the early morning you may be greeted by the uplifting vibes of Nomsa Mazwai and the surrealism of Billie Holiday, followed by a rambunctious mix of Fela Kuti, A Tribe Called Quest and Richie Spice, later in the afternoon. Cubby holes are filled with titles about Assata and Garvey. But definitely not limited to those subjects. Neatly stacked counters of shea butter soaps and lotions, entice you to sample their rich feel. Moroccan Myrr lifts the air while flags from all over the world brightly wave their presence. If you’re looking for that pair of earrings that scream more than just cute or a funky lid to tuck your locks under, this is it. Welcome to Nicholas! You’d be hard pressed to find something you didn’t like or need.
ARTA CHIC caught up with a very busy Monique Nicholas, who manages the Brooklyn location. The New Jersey native gave us the rundown on how she keeps up with a business that’s quickly becoming one of the dopest cultural spots in New York. For all you local heads peepin’ the vibe, wig toss to Nicholas(Harlem) too. Uptown kickin’ it. But right about now we on that ‘A’ train headed to 560 Fulton St. Ya’ heard.
Anyone who’s ever met Monique knows that she’s truly a genuine person. Never on that fake humble and always gracious whenever new customers make her store a destination while visiting the city. Local regulars treat her like a family member because she makes time for their conversations and isn’t afraid to share a laugh or two in between. On any given day you can find her behind the cash register ringing up a t-shirt or reorganizing a jewelry display case. Her vibe is so low-key you almost forget that she’s the one in charge. Along with that laid back approach is a business acumen that’s proven successful in her everyday running of Nicholas. When she’s not fielding phone calls or ordering take-out from Bati, she’s planning the store’s next event. We shot Monique a few questions about the tiny store that’s starting to develop such a big reputation in the community.
Nicholas is a family owned business. How did it get started?
My dad started Nicholas in 1974. At the time, he was a UPS driver who begin making contacts with wholesale suppliers along his route. This eventually led to him selling merchandise to various stores.
Then it’s safe to say this is the beginning of Nicholas Variety.
Not sure if starting his own business ever crossed his mind so much as seeking out additional income to support his family. At the time he had a wife, a kid, house and car payments. But I do believe the turning point for him came when there was a two month strike at UPS. He used that time off to find even more stores to sell to. It didn’t take him long to realize that he could make a better living working for himself. So he quit UPS. Some would consider it a risky move to leave a job that was bringing in a steady income. Not my dad.
How vital has your education been in terms of running the store’s day-to-day?
Very. Although I graduated from Rutgers University with a Business Economics degree, I’ve always had a knack for making money since I was a kid. Growing up watching my father run his business was my first real education. I learned at an early age that you should work for yourself. So I started selling candy in middle school all the way through high school. I had two book bags. One was for my books and the other one was filled with candy. After I made my first dollar everything inside of me changed. I saw how far hard work and dedication got you. Not only was I gaining hands on experience with supply and demand, I was also learning how to give customer service.
Did you ever think you would one day work alongside your family in their business?
Eventually, yeah. I started working at an online brokerage firm called Datek Online during my last semester at Rutgers. It was such a relief to start working in my field before graduation. As much as I enjoyed working in the financial sector, I always knew that I would end up working in my family’s store. Plus it was always a dream of mine to live in NYC. There’s no place like NY!
Tell us what type of customer do you cater to.
Our target customer is people of color. There are not many places where you can get a variety of ethnic products all under one roof. Also, I try to buy as many black produced products as possible. We as a people struggle with supporting one another. It’s been that way since integration, and we need to get back to owning our own businesses because at the end of the day no one is really looking out for us.
List a few of your more popular selling products. What are your personal faves?
I would have to say our Organic Bath & Body products sell the most. Incense, oils, t-shirts, books and jewelry are in close running. We carry such a wide range of products so we are really like your one stop shop. My favorite item in the store are the books. I love reading and I feel that it’s my duty to make sure the people in my community learn more about their history. There is only so much African history in school textbooks.
You can always find a hand painted t-shirt or an interesting piece of jewelry in Nicholas designed by local artists. How did that relationship come about? Who decides which artist to carry?
Whew! There are so many local independent designers in NYC! Usually they come into the store and bring samples of their work. A lot of it is also word of mouth. Sometimes a customer will say, ” I have this friend that makes jewelry” and that kind of peaks my interest. I love working with the local designers, especially the ones in Brooklyn. There is so much creativity here…it’s endless. At the end of the day, it’s all about us supporting each other.
Seems your store’s events calendar is solidly booked months ahead. It’s no secret that Brooklyn Nights is a popular monthly event. How did it start?
Brooklyn Nights is a spoken word event that has been going strong for a little over a year now. It’s my favorite event at the store. I really look forward to it every month. Because of my passion for music, I have always wanted to open a lounge in my lifetime. One day I said to myself, why don’t I just start having some sort of musical event at the store? That’s how Brooklyn Nights came into play. Our first two open mics were completely unorganized but I saw that people were still enjoying themselves. That’s when I realized that we were on to something. Eventually the vibe began to gel as more people participated. If you need a little inspiration in your life, then Brooklyn Nights is your fix. We all have such a blast! What I love the most is it’s not just about poetry. We’ve had musicians, tap dancers, rappers and singers. A little something of everything. You never know what you’re gonna get!
Nicholas has become a great social outlet for the community. Tell us about some of your other events. Did you ever envision such a thing happening?
Yes. I am always about getting information out to people in the community. I wanted to do something more besides our open mic night. So every Wednesday at the shop we hold lectures that cover a wide range of topics that include crystals and stones, numerology, water, languages and meditation. But my favorite workshop is our Urban Survival class. The information being provided here is so critical because disasters are unpredictable. Hurricane Katrina really hit close to home for me and the images of our people suffering have never left my mind. We need to have plans to mobilize if such a thing happens again. We cannot afford to be unprepared. Aid never comes to our communities so we must provide it for ourselves instead of depending on the government. We also offer Combat Tai Chi classes, healing workshops, book signings, and the occasional listening party.
Running a busy store leaves little time for self? What do you do to unwind, rejuvenate? What gives your life balance?
Honestly, I don’t know how I do it all. I would have to say that music is my outlet. I learned how to dj so I really enjoy doing that in my spare time. Music is my life. It keeps me going. Working out regularly helps too. I have always been athletic and running is definitely my thing. It’s a great way to clear my head and stay healthy at the same time. You have to make personal time for yourself. I believe that is the key to finding balance in your life. I love traveling to other countries. So any chance I get, I’m on the next plane!
What’s next for Nicholas Variety? Any plans for expansion, possibly out west? Any personal goals you’d like to achieve?
This place is more than just a store. It’s home. It’s a place to meet new friends. It’s an educational institution. It’s a place that just makes you feel good when you walk in. We have such a great space here. I am constantly thinking about what other events I can bring into the fold or ways that I can improve on the store. It would be great to set up shop in another country in the future. Who knows? The possibilities are limitless.
Nicholas Variety has two retail locations as well as a wholesale division to meet all of your cultural needs. If you don’t know, now ya’ know.
560 Fulton St. Brooklyn, NY 11217 (718) 858-4400
5 East 125th St. NY, NY 10035 (212)289-3628 (Harlem)
Interested in placing a wholesale order? Be sure to visit them online at www.nicholasreggae.com. Direct all inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Hit ’em up on Facebook www.facebook.com/nicholasbrooklyn and say you read about them in ARTA CHIC. This is a great spot. Slide thru the next time you’re in Brooklyn. Or peep their location on 1-2-5th. I promise you it won’t be your last time. Keep the vibe movin’ people. Tell somebody about Nicholas Variety. Let’s continue to support black owned businesses and all that they do to stay connected to you. That’s peace ya’ll.
– By Shon Lomax