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See 9/27/23 addendum here
Imagine you’re walking down East 9th Street and you spot a waist-coated, red-eyed rabbit in a rush to get somewhere. You reach for your iPhone, not to call a mental health hotline, as perhaps you should, but to tweet about it. But you suppress your urge long enough to give chase. You follow the rabbit through a hole and find yourself in a long, dim room, flanked by old furniture. Colorful trinkets hang from the ceiling and sit propped on shelves all around you. Overhead, music by which to cast spells is playing. You’d be drawn to the turbaned, fortune-telling fellow sitting in a box, were you not busy with the charming, unexpected finds that you keep discovering in every corner. If you then thought, “this ain’t no rabbit’s lair!,” you would be right. You find yourself at The March Hare at 321 East 9th Street, our July 2022 Business of the Month, a small toy store where childhood dreams new and old become reality.
The March Hare’s concept was inspired by the stores along Edinburgh’s Victoria Street, the corridor on which Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley was based. These narrow, cavernous storefronts made a strong impression on one of the March Hare’s founders, who set out to recreate in his new shop the evocative atmosphere that he found in that strip of old Edinburgh — a sense that you can almost hear the place talking to you. The name of the store is meant to evoke the feeling of having tumbled down a rabbit hole into a hidden, magical place. But that is only half of the story.
In the rolling hills of Donegal, Ireland, jack hares come out in March and get a little rowdy, punching each other over the hearts of jill hares. Thus the Irish expression, mad as a march hare; as in, you’d have to be mad as a march hare to open a store in the middle of a pandemic. But that’s precisely what Donegal natives Jason McGroarty and Karen McDermott did with The March Hare; and so they thought that the name fit.
Jason and Karen moved to New York in 2018, after years of periodic stays, to pursue their respective careers in fine arts photography and design. When the pandemic hit, their artistic income dried up and, as immigrants, they qualified for little social support. Karen, however, had been working at Dinosaur Hill, a longstanding neighborhood toy store then located on the block where they lived and just down the street from The March Hare’s current location. When its owner Pam decided, perhaps prodded by the pandemic, to retire, Jason and Karen wanted to take over the business. They loved the store’s whimsical aesthetic and idiosyncratic selection, wanted to preserve that in the neighborhood, and were up for the challenge of running a store — something neither of them had ever done before. As it turns out, though, Pam had years before offered her space upon retirement to her neighboring restaurant, Veselka, which had long wanted to expand its operation. When Dinosaur Hill shut down, however, Pam did not leave Jason and Karen without a consolation prize. She agreed to sign over to them the exclusive rights in the area for many of the vendors that she carried at Dinosaur Hill. With those in hand, the couple set out to find a storefront and were fortunate to come across their current space and their current landlord. Jason recounts:
My landlord, he’s a real old school New York City landlord, and he is fantastic… lovely guy, and he worked with us, understood the timing and what was happening, and really helped us transition into the space. And I also think he was very excited about bringing something like this into the neighborhood, because he himself lives for many years in the East Village.
The new space, which used to be a massage parlor, needed a lot of work. But Jason and Karen threw their hearts into it and were grateful for the physical and creative focus this work provided during an otherwise chaotic time. They were perhaps less grateful for the financial commitment and risk that this enterprise entailed. Still, the couple stayed true to their plan to replicate the Dinosaur Hill concept and put their own spin on it.
From the start, March Hare specialized in small brands of traditional toys, such as marionettes from a family-owned business in the Czech Republic, stuffed animals handmade by a local, and puzzles from a couple on the Upper East Side. Relying on word of mouth, Jason and Karen gradually expanded the brands that the store carried. Often, products showed up at the door, brought by artists whose work the couple agreed to sell on a consignment basis. In making their selections, Jason and Karen looked for the story behind the toy, an approach that Jason illustrates with this example:
An item can be an item; but a story will sell it. Take Gabriel. Gabriel lives in the East Village and made these wonderful handmade stuffed insects, because he’s obsessed with biodiversity, with the educational goal of teaching people about the unique role played by these animals.
Jason and Karen have also adjusted their merchandise selection process based on their experience with customers. They now strive to strike a balance between the demands of two types of customers: tourists and shoppers looking for unique gifts, and local families on a stroll looking for a weekly treat from among the store’s rotating inventory of inexpensive items.
(There are also those who try to use March Hare as a display room and then try to do their buying online. They will be surprised to find that the store makes a point of carrying lines that, by contractual agreement, are not sold on Amazon.) The couple is also mindful of having their selection not overlap with that of neighboring business. Jason explains:
We respect our business neighbors hugely. We’re not out to compete with other local businesses. So whatever someone else is doing nearby, we do not do. For instance, we don’t carry children’s clothing any more because an.mé exists across the street, and I love those guys. They’re two sweet, wonderful people. When we first [took over] we had a conversation to let them know that we’d be coming across the street, and ever since then, we’ve had this wonderful back and forth relationship. They have their own curated selection and we have ours, and it has been great.
As with am.mé, Jason and Karen have made an effort to connect with their neighbors. As Jason tells it, he did not come to New York for the anonymity and has valued becoming part of the local community:
Little things mean a lot to me, silly things like when you’re coming to work in the morning, I know all the businesses. We all wave to each other as we’re opening up the shutters. That’s very important to me. People in the neighborhood give you a friendly smile… and also know when to leave you alone.
The couple’s relationship to the community was, if anything, strengthened in the crucible of the pandemic, which, for months, posed formidable economic difficulties. Like many businesses, The March Hare looked for creative ways to make ends meet. They were forced to rely on online sales, and they offered local hand deliveries, from which Jason derived great enjoyment:
My wife and I would do daily walks anyway in the Village. So at the end of the business day, if people had purchased some item, we would just grab a bunch of bags and take it to their doorsteps. That was really sweet. I enjoyed doing that. Shaking hands and saying “howdy do” to the people who support us. That was nice.
The couple also operated a charity chest, allowing customers to purchase items at a discount and placing them in the chest as a donation. When the chest was full, Jason and Karen would curate packages based on their intended charitable destination. This allowed the business to give back to the community while also taking in much needed revenue.
Neighbors, Jason recalls fondly, also played a big role in keeping The March Hare in business:
People, it never fails to surprise me how nice people can be. They don’t have anyone to buy for, it doesn’t matter, they’ll pop in and try to support. And that’s a really, really nice thing. That’s what keeps the store going. This happens all the time. They appreciate what it is that we’ve done and the risk that we took and they reward us for that and they stop by and help us stay afloat.
Still struggling through the pandemic, The March Hare had to also confront a more personal health crisis. Karen was diagnosed with advanced stage colon cancer, and the couple had to deal with the steep medical bills for her treatment. To raise money, they decided to sell decorative clouds like the ones they had made to hang at the store. Customers had often asked if they were for sale; and they weren’t, until now. They announced the sale and, overnight, they sold a couple of hundred.
Beyond buying clouds, the community also kept finding ways to help the couple, donating work hours, as the store’s staff did, and making contributions through various means, even after the medical treatment forced the couple to shut down The March Hare. Jason describes this period with mixed feelings:
You have to remember that we are here without any of our family; we hadn’t seen our family in three years. Karen had been battling cancer at that time; COVID had happened at that time. So it was definitely hard, emotionally, financially, physically, very, very hard. But I feel like I found the East Village. We were never really short of people reaching out and helping us. We’ve had countless… we had a GoFundMe site. We had donations from people walking by. People dropped off envelopes…
As the couple managed to develop a routine around Karen’s cancer treatment, they decided to re-open the store. They also realized, however, that their medical situation would not allow them to focus properly on the challenges of running a retail store. With that in mind, and in spite of the effort they had put into realizing their vision for The March Hare, they decided to sell the store. Fortunately for all, the announcement generated an overwhelming number of suitors. This allowed Jason and Karen the luxury of finding “the perfect fit” — owners who would continue operating the business as The March Hare has been. They will take over at the end of the year.
For adding a little bit of magic to the lives of those who have wandered down their rabbit hole, we are thrilled to name The March Hare our July 2021 Business of the Month.
We see a visit to the March Hare in your future. Stop by 321 East 9th Street or visit their website and tell us if we were right.
Jason and Karen made good on their promise to find the perfect fit for their successors. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ideal suitor emerged from among longstanding neighbors and customers. For years, East Villager Ilana Wiles would visit with her daughters the much beloved, old-fashioned toy store Dinosaur Hill, where she could find, in the store’s ample selection of unique, low-tech toys and games, gifts for special occasions as well as cheap, everyday trinkets. As disappointed as she was when the store closed during the pandemic, she welcomed as a ray of sunshine amidst all the other recent closures news that one of its former employees had opened a store right across the street — the March Hare. Before long, she became a frequent visitor, and she eventually grew invested in the fate of the store when she learned of Karen’s illness and of the business’s uncertain future. Walking down the street one day, she recounted the store’s predicament to her friend Karen’s husband, who suggested, “why don’t we band together and buy it?” Why not, indeed.
Ilana’s background is in marketing and social media; her husband Mike’s, in operations; and Karen’s, in product development. Together, their complementary areas of expertise almost made up for the fact that none of them had ever run a storefront. So, swept up by the pandemic-period enthusiasm for career re-evaluations and moved by a desire to contribute to the revitalization of the neighborhood, they approached Jason and Karen with an offer; and the owners knew right away that the store would be in good hands.
The new team has done a great job preserving the integrity of the former owners’ vision, going so far as to occasionally bring in the couple to help with the display windows and with the assembly of seasonal gift packages. In addition to continuing to carry the store’s popular items, Ilana and Karen have introduced new products and features that conform with the March Hare spirit. They have expanded their selection of New York-related toys (including a giant stuffed taxicab that, though intended primarily as window decoration, keeps selling out); they have added more DIY toys, like the popular Wobbles crochet kits;
and they’ve launched a new and quickly expanding line of March Hare merchandise.
On special occasions, the store prepares gift packages that pair any of several toy options with a selection of small surprises. On a regular basis, it partners with charity initiatives (this past month it was childhood cancer awareness) and introduces a dedicated merchandise category, the profits from which partly go to the charity.
And, in an especially charming touch, it has introduced a fairy door where you can leave a note and, a few days later, get the fairy’s response.
If you were wondering, however, whether you should swing by March Hare to welcome its new owners to the neighborhood and see what whimsical toy catches your eye, there’s no need to ask the fairy. You should.
What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc
Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month: