On a recent Sunday, despite the closed blinds and an apologetic sign explaining that the store was restocking, a four-year-old pressed her face against the windows of We Are One Boutique at 599 Main Street and strained for a better look. Through the thin cracks in the blinds, one could just make out the form of an oversized stuffed unicorn.
Nestled at the southern end of the Westview arcade, just past Island Wines, We Are One has long styled itself as a women’s boutique offering clothing, accessories, and unique gifts. When the blinds finally come up in a couple of weeks, however, the store will have transformed itself into a children’s boutique focusing on high-quality educational toys and craft supplies.
“I’ve been working on this for a while,” says owner Irving Anderson. “I want to do it right.”
We Are One Boutique owner Irving Anderson and Tania Mcgregor.
An Unexpected Path
Anderson opened We Are One in 2000. A former patient at Coler Hospital, he’s well acquainted with the process of transformation.
In 1983, in Atlanta, Ga, Anderson was shot in the head during a robbery. “I was left for dead,” he says. “They gave me 24 hours to live – said that if I lived I’d be nothing but a vegetable for the rest of my life. I wasn’t able to talk. I was paralyzed totally.” Once his condition stabilized and he was able to be taken off the machines, Anderson was moved north to New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital, and from there was transferred to NYC Health + Hospitals/Coler on the Island. He eventually moved into an Eastwood apartment, now called Roosevelt Landings, and traveled back and forth to Coler for treatment.
Today, Anderson adeptly navigates the store’s small space in a motorized wheelchair, faxing documents for customers, ringing up sales, and managing the store’s changing inventory. He runs the business with Tania Mcgregor, a former model who also has a business degree and has worked in finance on Wall Street. The two married in 2008.
Over the last 17 years, Anderson says he’s seen a lot of ups and downs in Main Street retail. “That’s the reason for the change: retail has taken a fall. The Internet has taken over. More people are shopping online. That’s impacted the store a lot.”
Mcgregor also points to changes in the Island’s demographics. “I think that immensely impacted the business,” she says. “The new residents weren’t that supportive. Not to fault the people who moved in, but I just don’t think the store was catering to their needs. Irving wasn’t expecting that change. A lot of the people who used to support the business got older or moved away. A whole lot of the people moved away.”
Adapting to Change
In a search to discover what would bring in customers, Anderson started carrying items that were more unique. He then added cell phone accessories and fun gadgets. “The kids would walk by and, even though the stuff in the windows weren’t toys, they would want to come in,” recalls Mcgregor. “There were things that were attracting the kids even though they weren’t for kids.”
Then, two years ago, the store added to an already long list of services it provides and became a UPS Access Point. But while foot traffic increased, Mcgregor says it didn’t result in increased sales. “People were just coming to pick up their package or drop off their package but they still weren’t buying. So something was wrong. But the kids were still finding an interest here. They would come in and ask for things we didn’t have – like toys, water guns.” She opens her hand to indicate a lightbulb going off.
It’s About the Kids
Realizing they might be able to tap into the need for a store catering to kids, Anderson and Mcgregor started researching the market.
“We didn’t want to just do regular toys,” explains Mcgregor. “We wanted to do toys that kids could not only play with, but that would help the development of their minds.” Their search eventually led them to American toy manufacturer Melissa & Doug, which is known for their educational toys, pretend play, wooden puzzles, and art supplies.
“It takes me back to when I was a little girl and we had the wooden toys to play with. It wasn’t all about getting on the Internet or watching TV,” she says. “I really think Melissa & Doug focuses on learning while having fun, using the mind to become creative.”
Although they are still in the process of switching over their merchandise, the store is now lined with shelves of games, sticker books, puzzles, firetrucks, and activity sets. A bag overflows with stuffed animals awaiting a home among the other toys.
“The shop is still a boutique,” says Mcgregor, “but the main focus will now be on educational toys.”
Thriving on Main Street
Asked what it would take for Main Street retail to thrive, Anderson and Mcgregor both say community. “There has to be community support. Shop within your community. We’re not saying don’t shop on the Internet, but being a part of the community is important,” Mcgregor says.
They also offer praise for Hudson Related, the company tasked by RIOC with managing retail along the Main Street corridor. “They are very, very receptive,” Mcgregor says as Anderson nods in agreement beside her. “Always in the most positive light. I think they understand that retail business has taken a fall. But it’s also given Irving the opportunity to continue for 17 years. There are no subsidies. Everything is out of our pocket. Hence it’s taking a little longer to open everything to the public.”
They expect the restock to be completed in the next week or two.
“Irving wants everything done the right way,” she adds. “We want to make sure it’s safe. Everything being brought in is lead free, made in America. Parents want to know that whatever they go in to buy is not going to affect their child’s health. I think that’s a big concern with a lot of parents today, with some of the stuff that’s coming over from China.”
We Are One Boutique is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.