Jewish women who operate fashion, décor and design firms join a proud lineage of business owners in Northeast Ohio
Story by Alyssa Schmitt | Photography by Michael C. Butz
Running a business can get messy. Keren Himmel and Jaclyn Heller learned this in the infancy of their own business, H&H Revived, a Solon-based interior design firm. In those early days, as they painted furniture, their children sometimes ran around covered in various colors. They joked they lived in chaos.
When Himmel and Heller opened H&H Revived in August 2015, they became part of a decades-old tradition of Jewish women in Northeast Ohio who turned their idea for a decor, design or fashion business into a reality.
While their beginnings in business differ, a theme of thriving through hectic times and growing pains threads through many of their narratives. What they also share is a sense of community – of camaraderie amid potential competition, often seeking advice from each other or those who have gone before them.
Fostering family dynamics
Audrey Bergrin’s days in retail reach back to childhood, when she worked for her father, who sold kosher and kosher-style meats. She had always worked for someone else – until, that is, she opened her own store, Audrey’s Sweet Threads.
As a child, Bergrin wanted to wear upscale clothes, so she worked multiple jobs to afford them. At the time, she painted purses, tops and murals, and in the process, discovered her love of dressing other women.
“It became a point that I wanted to make an income and I had seen people with stores and decided I would like to do that, and did it,” she says.
As with most everything, that was easier said than done. To start her business, she went to the Chicago Apparel Mart, a clothing trade show in Chicago, and acted like she knew what she was doing as a buyer. She admits, however, she didn’t know much at the time.
“I really just thought that if you just kind of sound like you know what you’re doing, you can get into different showrooms and see if they would possibly sell you something to be able to start your own business,” she says.
Apparently, though, she said the right things because she was able to start buying a small inventory of clothing to set up shop in her basement. Fast-forward to 2019, and in addition to Audrey’s Sweet Threads, which specializes in casual wear, Bergrin owns Audrey’s, which opened in April 2018 and focuses on women’s formal wear. Both are at Eton Chagrin Boulevard in Woodmere.
Though online shopping has risen to the forefront, Bergrin opts out of selling online in an effort to offer customers a more personalized experience.
“We’re small enough to give them a different look and a different identity,” she says. “We do try to keep it where we know our customers and know their needs. … I know that the people who shop with me really enjoy seeing (themselves) as individuals rather than seeing (the clothes they buy) on every Tom, Dick and Harry.”
Growing up, Bergrin looked through the windows of My Darling Daughter in Shaker Heights and Donna Lee at Cedar Center but never entered because her mother didn’t share her interest in clothing. However, she saw other mother-daughter duos going into stores and shopping together and was inspired to create something similar in her stores.
“I wanted to be able to go into a small shop and do that type of shopping,” says Bergrin, a member of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood. “I wasn’t able to at the time and I think it inspired me. I see a lot of mothers and daughters shopping in my store now and it reminds me of what I would have liked.”
Forging community connections
Similar mother-daughter pairs can be found perusing the eclectic offerings at Double Rainbow, a lifestyle and clothing boutique for girls in Shaker Heights’ Van Aken District.
About four years ago, a thought popped into owner Meg Ratner’s head: What was she going to do once her children were grown? She had been a stay-at-home mom for about 11 years and wanted to rejoin the workforce. Owning her own business had always been an appealing idea, so she started to research it.
“I started to talk to as many people as I could who have businesses of their own … and just get a sense for what it takes to run a business and everything you need to do beforehand,” she says.
In October 2018, she took the plunge and opened her store. Ratner aims to offer items girls can’t find elsewhere in Northeast Ohio. The inventory ranges from stylish eating utensils and food trays to fashionable clothes and garb sporting pop culture references to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In the early going, owning a store has grown into both a family affair and balancing act.
“It’s been a big change for me because I haven’t worked since my kids were born,” she says. “My approach has been really trying to manage my time between my family and my store, which means having help at the store and trying to include my family in the business process.”
Even after getting in the groove of running a business, issues can arise. To relieve the stress and make her feel like she’s not alone, Ratner talks with other female business owners.
“I think it’s just good to know that there are other people out there sort of going through the same thing you are, because it is a lot to manage as a woman,” says Ratner, a congregant at Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike. “I feel no matter what, ultimately kids by default go to the mom for everything, so we’re all sort of juggling our personal life, our family life, our business life. So, it’s nice to be able to get together. … It sort of helps you push through when you’re second guessing how much you’ve over-committed yourself.”
Learning from female leaders
Isabel Pritchett, owner of Sanity in Chagrin Falls, may have gotten into the retail game later than Bergrin, but she was on the same track, just a different style.
Pritchett opened her clothing boutique in 2008 with her husband, Kevin. She had been working in retail since her teenage years. The idea of owning her own store was always in the back of her mind, though it was not what her parents had in mind.
“(My parents) came straight from Russia and they wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, and I just knew in my heart that was not what I was meant to do,” she says. “Since the day I could work, basically when I was 15 or 16 years old, I got my first retail job and I had always worked in retail and I always found so much value in that customer connection and customer service.”
Opening during the recession in 2008 was daunting – and resulted in a quick price drop throughout Sanity’s inventory – but Pritchett was determined to make it work. For two years, it was she and her husband who worked at the store every day of the week.
Pritchett’s early years working in retail allowed her to see how various female general managers could lead a store, a collection of perspectives that serves as a valuable resource in her current role. She describes all of those managers as strong women who knew how to pick up the slack and make it look effortless.
“They definitely had stuff going on in their lives, but they just put that all aside and made their job their priority,” she says. “We all have stuff that goes on in our lives, but when it comes to our customers, they come here for a great experience. So, anything that’s kind of personal, even all my (employees), I tell them you just leave it at the door.”
Following those first couple of recession-riddled years, Pritchett fully took over running the store while her husband opened another business. In so doing, she has relied on employees not only to handle front-of-house matters with customers but also to assist in marketing, social media and staying in contact with customers through newsletters.
Partnering to build business
Himmel and Heller met about six years ago, when their sons were in preschool at Park Synagogue. The boys became inseparable – as did the mothers once they realized their shared artistic nature.
Both had recently bought new houses and were slowly buying furniture and redesigning parts, so they often talked about their projects, which led them to taking a class on painting furniture at White Magnolia Boutique in Chagrin Falls.
“We just started accumulating furniture,” Himmel says. “We kind of realized we had a thing going and we started working out of my dad’s garage.”
Their work would sell at White Magnolia, and soon thereafter, customers started asking them to repaint dining room sets. That then led to customers asking about lighting fixtures and the pair opening an account with Cleveland Lighting in Lyndhurst, which in turn led them to gaining a business license to be able to resell those lighting fixtures.
“It just started to turn into repeat clients asking us to design or do a room, and it just kept snowballing and snowballing. Now, we’re literally gutting a kitchen, moving it to a different place and adding additions,” Himmel says.
“We don’t even paint that much anymore because we’re so busy with the interior design,” says Heller, adding they will paint a piece of furniture to fit the style of a room.
Preparing to be successful
Tamar Brecher and Robin McCann met while volunteering at the Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood, where their children go to school. Through a shared love of spreadsheets and a desire to open up a store that would offer unique items not found in other stores in the area, the pair set out to open Luster, a gift boutique that opened in December 2018 in Shaker Heights’ Van Aken District.
“When we go to a show or find an artist on Etsy or Instagram, one of the first questions we ask is, ‘Who are you selling to?’” Brecher says. “We really try to make an effort to not overlap. It has happened – we’ve gotten stuff in and we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this store has this’ – so we sell out of it and move on.”
Luster offers items ranging from home goods and bath products to statement jewelry, accessories and handbags. One of Brecher and McCann’s goals was to build a place where other working women and mothers could cover all of their gift-purchasing needs.
Balance is also important – a lesson Brecher learned from an early age. Growing up, she spent time in the nail salon where her mother ran a jewelry shop with her close friend in White Plains, N.Y. On occasion, Brecher would accompany them to Manhattan to purchase jewelry for their shop. Even while running a business, Brecher’s mother was always at home when she was needed and figured out the work-life balance, something Brecher and McCann say they’ve been able to achieve through their own business.
Though Luster only recently opened, preparation began two years prior. Brecher and McCann went through three accounting boot camp sessions to learn how to do their own bookkeeping, took entrepreneurial classes at Bad Girl Ventures, an organization that enables women to start and sustain businesses by providing resources that has since turned into Aviatra Accelerators, and joined the Women Business Center of Ohio in Cleveland.
“We were so careful and deliberate and slow in building it and making sure we were educated on every piece of this business before the doors opened,” McCann says. “There’s nothing about this that we took lightly, even down to interviewing architects (for the store’s design). … We really worked hard to truly educate ourselves on every single aspect of this store.” JS