How a tiny Mexican art store in one of NYC's priciest neighborhoods has thrived for 20 years despite skyrocketing rents
Jennifer Ortakales/Business Insider
- It's National Hispanic Heritage Month, and Latino-owned businesses have become a major asset to the US economy. According to a Biz2Credit study, more Latinos in the US are applying for small-business loans and shrinking the funding gap.
- In a city with increasingly expensive rent, a small shop in NYC's East Village stands out for its vibrancy and longevity.
- La Sirena captivates tourists and locals with colorful paper banners (papel picado), Frida Kahlo ornaments, and Día de Los Muertos skulls (calaveras).
- Owner Dina Leor had little knowledge about running a business when she opened in 1999. She's struggled to pay rent at times, but continues to find ways to keep her Mexican folk-art store open without raising her prices.
When people walk into La Sirena in New York City's East Village, they're either looking for a very specific piece of Mexican culture, or they've stumbled upon its captivating menagerie by chance.In a city with increasingly expensive rent, it's clear that owner Dina Leor, who is Argentine-American, doesn't take her real estate for granted. Inside, she makes use of every square inch to display thousands of pieces she collects, primarily handmade by artisans in Mexico. There are colorful paper banners (papel picado), Frida Kahlo ornaments, altar candles, and Día de Los Muertos skulls (calaveras).Advertisement
Leor said she had no idea what she was doing when she started a small business in 1999, and she still does many things the same. She does her own accounting on a lined notebook, doesn't have an online store, and has never kept inventory. She went to art school, not business school. Customers may be attracted to her shop for the bright colors and array of pieces, but they stay for Leor's knowledge of Mexican culture and passion for supporting local artisans.Latino-owned businesses like Leor's have become a major asset to the US economy. According to a study by the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Latino-owned businesses contribute more than $700 billion to the economy each year. A Biz2Credit study also found that more Latinos in the US are applying for small-business loans and shrinking the funding gap.
Business Insider visited her store to find out how she turned her devotion to Mexican art into a brick-and-mortar that keeps people coming back.
The store immediately welcomes customers into a celebration of Mexican culture.
The wide array of decor, clothing, and art evoke what it's like to walk into a gift shop in Mexico.Advertisement
Leor is a self-proclaimed shopaholic, but only when buying for her store.
The moment customers walk in, Leor jumps up to show them around and teach them about Mexican culture.Advertisement
Leor taught one woman about the Mexican symbols and traditions of the pieces she liked.
A costume designer came in to find Mexican dresses for a play.Advertisement
La Sirena is celebrating 20 years in business this year, but Leor started collecting Mexican art much earlier.
Leor became a carpenter and art therapist. She made trips back to Mexico any chance she had.Advertisement
Most of all, she loved visiting artisans and buying their pieces to take back home.
In New York, people stopped her on the street to ask about her mercado bags.Advertisement
Leor collected so much art that one of the rooms in her home became a storage space.
'I'd never thought of having a store. Ever.'Advertisement
Leor didn't have much knowledge about building a business, but what someone may see as a disadvantage, she sees as her advantage.
On one of her buying trips to Mexico, Leor spent $9,000 on 11 crates of art she shipped to the US.Advertisement
About a year later, Leor found a real estate company looking for first-time store owners who couldn't afford spaces on their own.
With 10 crates of products left in her apartment, she didn't need to go back to Mexico before opening.Advertisement
Hiring and managing employees is one of Leor's biggest challenges.
Owning a Mexican folk-art store, Leor feels an obligation to hire Spanish-speaking employees.Advertisement
Affording rent in New York City has been a persistent battle for Leor.
Her rent increases each year, but Leor said she'll likely stay because the rents in other parts of New York City are so exorbitant.Advertisement
When Leor struggles financially, her strategy is to have big sales.
Community and art events also help boost her sales.Advertisement
Leor has noticed other stores in the area closing.
She couldn't pinpoint what's kept her store going, but said she doesn't know of any stores like hers that carry the same variety.Advertisement
Advertising isn't worth the extra money for her, so Leor relies on social media and a 5,000-person email list to market her sales and events.
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