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Business of the Month: Lori McLean, 207 Avenue A

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In these times of income polarization, we attach special value to the leveling power of beauty, which is available to all who open their eyes to it. And yet, when it comes to consumer products, beauty often does come at a price. This makes us appreciate all the more businesses committed to democratizing access to luxury. And affordable luxury is what you’ll find at our February Business of the Month, Lori McLean, which breathes new life to the uncommon credo, “Jewelry to the People!” This small, charming store features an evolving selection of carefully crafted jewelry by independent designers, including Lori herself, as well as custom work for those wishing to bejewel their body after their own idiosyncratic vision. 

Lori McLean fell into this line of work, not as a jewelry lover, but as a studio arts college major who discovered that she found wax carving — the first step in jewelry making — deeply satisfying. She would come home and produce casts just for fun. By the early ‘90s, she had started designing and producing sterling silver jewelry, and soon her hobby became a fledgling business known for a line characterized by colorful, translucent enamel panes on textured silver backgrounds. 

Lori’s design and production work continued out of a studio in TriBeCa after she moved to New York and took up residence in Greenwich Village. A few years after her move, MoMA commissioned her to produce an exclusive jewelry collection based on Frank Lloyd Wright designs. And yet, despite her success, Lori grew tired of production work and wanted to run a more people-facing business. So she opened a small shop on Grove Street in 2004, thinking to herself, “there have been retailers throughout all of history. How hard can it be?” The answer to her question would soon surprise her. Still, she did not regret her decision, explaining, “It’s more fun with people and having a little store — a neighborhood shop. People stop by! You know them!”

Notwithstanding the challenges of running a store, Lori McLean soon found a following with its selection of handmade jewelry by local artists and of vintage pieces procured and repaired by Lori herself. After a decade in the Village, however, she was priced out of the neighborhood. She decamped to East 11th street in the East Village in 2014, along with Adam, the longest tenured of her friendly staff members. By then, much about the store had changed. Most significantly, Lori had rediscovered her passion for design and introduced a new line of her own, inspired by Victorian and Georgian jewelry. The store had also moved away from vintage jewelry and started emphasizing custom work and repairs, all of which is done by local jewelers, as well as handmade jewelry by other independent designers whose work she admires. These include designers such as Grannie Morton, Carla Caruso, Jane Diaz, and Rebecca Norman, among others.

A custom job in early stages
Jane Diaz
Grannie Morton
Danielle Welmond
Danielle Welmond
Lori McLean
PeLo Modern Hair by Rebecca Norman
Carla Caruso

In the ways that matter most, however, the store has remained the same, and Lori’s appetite for seeking out unusual, well-made jewelry across a range of “neighborly” price points remained undiminished. The move to the East Village, at any rate, proved a windfall to her business in ways beyond the decrease in rent. Not only did many of her old customers find their way to her, but plenty of new neighbors discovered her for the first time and made her feel welcome beyond her expectations.  

The pandemic posed a challenge to Lori’s shop as it did to all storekeepers. She was forced to shut down; she had no income beyond that resulting from aid programs; her lease was up; and the landlord’s renewal offer reflected little interest in retaining her as a tenant. Out of the crisis, however, arose opportunity. The former landlord of Obscura Antiques on Avenue A offered her favorable terms to move to his attractive space. Lori now enjoys a store spacious enough to accommodate work space in the back, as well as higher foot traffic.

On top of that, she inherited a few of Obscura Antique’s eye-catching artifacts to go with the assortment of idiosyncratic decorative pieces (some of which were gifts by customers, neighbors, and fellow jewelers and storekeepers) that vie for attention with the jewelry. 

Lori reflects back upon the trajectory of her store with gratification and not a little bit of bewilderment. Asked to explain her business’s longevity, she whispers: 

Honestly, I don’t really know! Maybe it’s because I’m like this [mimicking a tenacious, clawing feline.] It’s difficult keeping a small business going in Manhattan. It’s a shame, because it’s a nice part of our city. But I still like being a small shop owner. I like being here, downtown. I like sticking around! 

Another likely answer, however, may simply lie in her devotion to her clients. 

I love my job. The shop is nice. It goes in rounds; but I’m proud that we’ve lasted. It’s kind of mysterious to me. But I work with really great people. And it’s really heartwarming, customers coming back. It’s just sweet. 

And customers do come back in some form or other. These days, Lori routinely receives thank you notes from customers, along with family pictures that include kids who, by now, are in college. Closer to home, she throws an anniversary / holiday party every year (barring pandemic conditions) that draws customers from throughout the store’s history. Old patrons remind her that she is missed in their neighborhood. New ones drop by to say hi. But luckily, you don’t have to wait for this year’s party to pay a visit and come out adorned by one of Lori’s fanciful creations. 

For helping seekers of craft and beauty walk the fine line between the affordable and the aspirational, and between artifacts and fantasy, we are thrilled to name Lori McLean our February 2023 Business of the Month.

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:

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