The Mom Behind Monk's Trunk

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After taking time off work to have a baby, the idea of starting your own business suddenly becomes appealing, especially if you don’t want to go back to your old gig, or your old gigs are hard to come by. (I’m talking mainly to the moms here.) The perks are obvious—instead of searching for new work you create your own, and you get to set your own hours, perhaps even work from home in your bathrobe. And now that you have a child, you probably know the perfect business that would appeal to parents like you…

So the ideas start to percolate. Maybe you could open a kids’ gym. Or sell cute knitted booties online. Or if you’re Carrie McLaren, you could start a kids’ consignment store in the parlor floor of your brownstone.

McLaren, the mom of a two-year-old boy, has worked in a few different creative fields, namely as a graphic designer (she designed these Brooklyn Jews shirts) and as the publisher of a cult magazine called Stay Free! that both critiqued and satirized advertising and consumerism. She also blogged for Consumerist.com and started the neighborhood blog, Hawthorne Street, with her husband Charles Star, and she curates a lecture series called Adult Education (considering her past lecture on “Why You Want a Monkey” and her store’s name, she seems to have a soft spot for simians). But after her Stay Free anthology Ad Nauseam came out last year, the media world had irrevocably changed and it was time for a new career. As one of many new parents in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, she knew the neighborhood could use a kid’s clothing shop, so in September she opened Monk’s Trunk on Hawthorne Street.

She originally envisioned a commercial space, but opening the store in the brownstone she and her husband bought five years ago made more sense financially (and yes, it’s perfectly legal). Ultimately the gorgeous woodwork—which McLaren restored—gives the shop a much more refined vibe than your typical kids consignment store. The clothes are all either gently used or brand-new castoffs from parents who bought a season ahead and didn’t gauge the sizes right or don’t like their mother-in-law’s taste. (I found a cute J. Crew skirt and H&M leggings for my girl this morning.) There are also new and used toys, strollers, Ergos, and books, and an impressive selection of shoes and boots.

Four months in to her new role as a shop owner, I thought it would be interesting to find out what life is like for McLaren.

You’ve worked in many different creative fields, often as a freelancer. Does this latest career path feel very different from your other work?
Yes and no. Yes in that I’m trying to make a profit, which is a novelty for me. But no in that, as far as businesses go, it’s not very money-driven. No one goes into children’s consignment to make a killing. In fact, the consignment industry bible ends with the author—who has been in the business for twentysomething years—saying she’d never sell children’s clothes because they’re too unprofitable.

It sounds like a cliche but what I really like about doing the shop is being involved in the local community. I’ve gotten to know a ton of cool parents around here. Most of my previous work has consisted of me sitting alone in my cubbyhole, looking at a computer screen all day.

You’re a critic of consumer culture by trade—did that influence your decision to open a resale/consignment shop, rather than a store selling brand-new goods?
Definitely. From an environmental perspective, there’s no match for resale. Nothing even comes close. The only thing better than buying used is buying nothing at all.

That said, if we only appeal to environmentalists or non-consumers, we don’t have much of a business. The clothes we carry need to look great, otherwise people are just going to shop at Target and Old Navy. I see those stores as my competitors, the stores that sell disposable clothing… I want to get more people buying less disposable clothing.

What’s it like running a store and raising a toddler? Does he ever hang out at the shop?
He’s occasionally in the store but I try to avoid it! I’m not a fan of playing mom and shopkeeper at the same time, at least not with a toddler. The most hilarious thing in the world for him is to do the opposite of whatever I want him to do.

What are the perks for your boy?
He’s well-dressed! And he gets to try out most of the used toys that come into the shop, so there’s always something new to play with. We sell new toys as well, and he helps test those out for me—he’s my guinea pig. But there are some disadvantages too. If he misbehaves, I can always threaten to sell his toys to the neighbors.

Does your husband help out at Monk’s Trunk?
I work on weekends and he’s been a big help in taking care of our son on his own. Ever since the store has opened, our little guy has been in what I like to think of as a daddy “phase.” Charles is his favorite parent… though, as the runner up, I’m at least a close second.

Are you still doing graphic design work or writing?
I designed the store logo and website, and write for the store blog and Hawthorne Street. I’m hoping to do more when the startup stuff settles down.

It’s always a struggle juggling everything–work, motherhood, marriage–and finding time to enjoy all the things you used to have time for. Is there any activity or creative pursuit you’ve had to put on hold?
I haven’t gotten a haircut in 6 months; my office is a wreck; I haven’t had any time to read for pleasure or to prepare any Adult Ed lectures in over a year. I’m hoping to figure it all out in 2011. That’s my New Year’s Resolution.

Any advice for a budding “mompreneur” who’s thinking of going into a line of work that’s geared toward children?
First, I would tell them never to use the word “mompreneur”—it’s deadly. Also: research, research, research. The odds on starting a new business are against you. Take time to do whatever you want to do right.

3 Responses

  1. Pete -

    carrie all those fliers are stealing my eyeballs. and the sandwich board is stealing my eyeballs. lol.

    Reply
  2. Pete -

    carrie all those fliers are stealing my eyeballs. and the sandwich board is stealing my eyeballs. lol.

    Reply
  3. Pete -

    carrie all those fliers are stealing my eyeballs. and the sandwich board is stealing my eyeballs. lol.

    Reply

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