Of all the types of shops that exist in the world, a general store is
always my favorite. The mix of old and new, practical, and “just because” items makes for a special spot with a little bit of something for everyone. Throw in a beautiful store design and I’m sold. So when I heard about Willoughby General opening in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, I was excited and donated to their original Kickstarter campaign. I eagerly followed their renovation process from abandoned barber shop to a clean, modern space with a blend of locally produced food and home goods, a book exchange and plenty of odds and ends to bring home. Last week I took the bus down to the city to meet Sasha and visit Willoughby General in person. We talked with co-owners Barbara Lester and Rae Tutera about what inspired their new shop and what they’re hoping it will grow to be and provide for their neighborhood. Thanks so much to Rae and Barbara for welcoming us! Head to the gallery above for a tour of their beautifully-designed space and if you’re in Brooklyn, head to 518a Willoughby Avenue to check them out in person. xo, grace
Photography by Sasha Israel
The new exterior of 518a Willoughby Avenue, a long-closed barber shop now given a new life as Willoughby General. Barbara first saw this storefront eight years ago, when it was still Star-Lite Barbershop. After the former owner closed his shop, it was boarded up and used as a storage unit for the landlords. Rae and Barbara both fantasized about opening something in this space and eventually Barbara got the landlords' number from a friend in the neighboring building. (The exterior is metal sheeting painted in warm organic colors that go with the flowers in the windows -- Benjamin Moore's Sage and Vintage Charm)
Willoughby General's goal is, "to be an outpost with a little bit of everything." Rae explained that their goal is also, "to be welcoming so that people who make things or who have ideas about how to use the space will keep coming by and sharing their creations and ideas." Rae and Barbara say the neighborhood response has been really welcoming so far. "When we're tempted to regret how long it took us to complete our build-out, we remind ourselves how lucky we were to get to know so many of our neighbors on Willoughby Avenue in advance of opening our shop. A lot of people know first-hand how hard we worked to get the space ready and it's always heartening when they come in to tell us it looks good or that they're proud of us."
Rae and Barbara started their build-out in late December of 2014. Barbara had just resigned from the mobile crisis unit where she was working and Rae was ready to take on another project in addition to her work with
Bindle & Keep
. "We were both at a moment where we each wanted to work hard but not for someone else," Rae explained. Barbara made a scale model of the shop, built cardboard models of the shelving and counters and drew up basic plans. "Our aesthetic is minimalist with a country vibe, without going full-on country general store."
Rae and Barbara built a community book exchange into the side counter of Willoughby General.
Barbara and Rae worked on the shop's floors (patching and the painting) themselves. Then they hired an electrician, a plumber and a woodworker (Sawyer DeVuyst of
) to finish their early plans. "We opened about 8 months after our build-out began, in part because we had to take time off so Rae could get married to Barbara's daughter (which was another big project in itself because we hosted the wedding up at Barbara's house in Greene County). Our vision for the shop interior was cool and neutral so that the products could all speak for themselves and provide color and contrast." The paint colors inside are Behr Loft Space and Pencil Point.
"We both live in Bed-Stuy just a little over a block from our storefront. For both new residents and long-time residents, shopping off our subway stop is limited," explained Rae. "We've all experienced schlepping food or goods home on the train or bus, wishing we didn't have to. We were inspired to open a shop that could provide the staples many of us have gotten in the habit of leaving the neighborhood for, starting with bread and coffee beans."
The back left corner of the shop has a beautiful ladder that Sasha and I both loved.
The front counter has a mix of coffee, baked goods and other tasty grab-and-go snacks. We also loved the tiny torn-out Celine ad on the back wall featuring Joan Didion.
The right side of the shop has shelving with a mix of home and food products. At the front window is a marble countertop for catching up with friends over snacks and coffee.
A selection of (mostly) locally made products available at the front counter.
"It's a joy to be able carry the goods our friends and neighbors make locally and thoughtfully. In particular, there's Brooklyn Queen honey that we get from Margot Dorn who has a hive on the next block in the Hart to Hart community garden (where Barbara's president). It tastes like flowers and people have been buying it to help quiet their allergies," explained Rae. Recently Rae's friends Hey Anna released their first album, so now they're selling a few copies and playing the vinyl in the shop, too. "That's the thing about the shop that's so exciting; we can be adaptable, collaborative, supportive and expansive because we're a general store."
Rae and Barbara in front of their very first shop counter together. "In the next few years, we hope to grow enough to hire folks to work here so that our roles can evolve. We'd like to launch a web shop and have the time to travel to source goods for it," they explained.
Sasha and I loved the connection Rae and Barbara have. Working together, living in the same building and being family is a very special bond -- one we could definitely see present in their laughs and smiles.