Young entrepreneur has beat on the hood


By Aileen Torres

Newly married Tribeca woman hones in on the baby crowd

Upon entering Happy Baby Toys it’s clear that this is not a typical children’s store. Instead of “Baby Beluga” blasting through the speakers, Christina Aguilera and Madonna dominate the airwaves. That’s exactly how owner Michele Smith, 30, likes it. Apparently, the customers like it, too.

“I can see them pickin’ out their thing, and they’re kind of swayin’,” said Smith, a slim, fashionable, Tribeca resident with a friendly, upbeat manner.

Smith opened the store this past April.

“If you can go into business for yourself, you may make mistakes, but at least you’re creating your own destiny and making your own kind of mistakes,” said Smith, who has lived on Greenwich St for the past four years.

Married in June 2003, Smith returned from her honeymoon, to find herself contemplating her next move. She began pondering what types of businesses would be a good fit for the neighborhood.

“My husband and I love it here. We also think that the neighborhood could use different amenities to support the population that continues to grow here, in particular, the family element.”

She narrowed down the possibilities by talking to residents, particularly mothers and nannies who were around during the daytime. It soon became clear that what the neighborhood could use was a toy store for babies. Next, she took a job at the Scholastic store in Soho to learn retail hands on. By the end of January 2004, she had secured a space for her shop, and in April, she was open for business.

From the beginning, Smith envisioned the store as being unique. For example, she likes to order products from foreign companies. While that can be a logistical hassle, Smith takes pride in the fact that her store carries products that other stores don’t.

“A lot of the stuff that we have in here, they’re not typical toys, so I do all this research to find these companies.”

The lead time for delivery is much longer for some things. For example, she is purchasing blankets from Greece, which have to go through customs. The ratio of imported to domestic products in the store is approximately 60 to 40, she said.

Keeping the products fresh and unique is not the only thing that Smith worries about.

Her desire to give the store, whose products are tailored for newborns to 4-year-olds, something extra, in addition to its retail component, led to the concept of the “Summer Seminar Series,” comprising five lectures to run through Aug. 25.

“I never envisioned this to just be a retail store,” said Smith.

The topics are: understanding children’s development stages and behavior; prenatal Pilates; the role of creativity and art in children’s learning; parenting methods that emphasize children’s self-respect, and postpartum transitions.

“The goal is really to give the customers who come in here every day an opportunity to learn about something they never knew about before. And it’s very casual. The tone and the style of the store is very relaxed. I’m not a child expert, and I don’t claim to be. We’re not trying to say we know everything about child healthcare. We just want to offer information to people, and that’s true of our product and our services.”

The store also offers “Story and Music Time” every Thursday at 10 a.m. Smith actually performed the reading for the first Story Time. She read “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” During Music Time, a guitar player comes in who plays primarily folk-y tunes for the kids.

While Smith enjoys owning her own store in the neighborhood, she admits that living and working in the same area is a big adjustment. It makes getting a manicure a whole other experience.

“You’re going to see people who shop in the store. I mean, I’m not a celebrity, but you have to be aware of your customers because I think it would be rude if you’re in the same store as someone who shops in your store and you don’t say hello. The upshot is you get to see people in other situations, and I think that creates a trust and another dimension to the relationship.”

Three months in, Smith is very satisfied with owning her own store. She finds it delightfully different from her old job.

“When you’re writing software you are often delivering it to people who don’t like it or are indifferent towards it. It’s such a different experience to sell something to somebody and they love it, or their child loves it. It’s a completely different feeling. I like when people come in, and they’ll be like, `Oh my god, he loved it! Thank you!’” When that happens, Smith knows she’s done her job well, and that’s a very gratifying feeling.

Happy Baby Toys, 51 Hudson, Call 212-406-7440 to reserve a seat for a Summer Seminar Series. Gift baskets can also be ordered by phone.

WWW Downtown Express