12/1/2020

Small Business Spotlight

A Lasting Labor of Love: Janoff's Stationery

Learn how the historic NYC art and office supply store, Janoff's Stationery, is surviving the pandemic thanks to its loyal community of local customers and its devoted owners, Jim and Jerry Ma.

Katie Lee

Marketing Manager

Jerry and Jim Ma, brothers and co-owners of Janoff's Stationery, share inspiring advice for small business owners and what it's like working for their decades-old family business. Find Janoff's Stationery on Instagram, or visit their brick-and-mortar store in NYC.

Hatch:

Hello and welcome to Hatch Small Business Spotlights where small business owners share stories about getting started, lessons learned and victories they've won along the way to building their businesses. I'm Hatch from Artifact and today we are joined by Justin and Jerry, brothers who run Janoff's Stationery in New York City. Janoff's has been in their family for 40 years and they spoke to me about having your dad as your boss and being supported by their community during the pandemic.


Jerry:

My name is Jerry, one of the brothers of the store, Janoff's, which is a family-owned art office and architect supply store.


Jim:

My name is Jim. I'm, the other brother. Janoff's has been servicing the Morningside Heights, Columbia University neighborhood in Manhattan for 40 years, in our family. Prior to that, Mr. And Mrs. Janoff had been owning and operating it for longer than anyone seems to know. We've had family members of theirs come in and no one knows how far back they go. We go by Janoff's Stationery now, but it was Janoff's Typewriter. And I believe still, in different areas, it's still listed as Janoff's Typewriter. But I'd say the biggest roadblock has been navigating and weaving through market demands. Whereas once we sold and repaired typewriters as part of the primary function of the business, now it's evolved into primarily architecture supply, hobby and craft stuff. From typewriters through the '80s, when it was all about servicing businesses and office supplies, and now we find ourselves serving art students, architecture students, and hobbyists, enthusiasts, professional artists.


Jerry:

Another aspect of our store too, is we're quite proud, or I should say, I'm quite proud of my father, at least. We sell fountain pens and we've become something of like a destination store for fountain pen enthusiasts, which I know you might giggle at. But there actually is quite a big following, a strong following for fountain pens. We probably have one of the top collections in America.


New Faber-Castell fountain pens at Janoff's Stationery

Hatch:

So for you two guys personally, you're growing up, there's this family business, at what stage did you become a part of that business? And what was that like jumping into something that had already been running for a while?


Jerry:

So I was a Graphic Designer for a majority of my work life, if you will. I've been a Art Director for graphic design for clothing. And I want to say, I think it's about four, maybe five years now? So I quit my career as a Art Director five years ago to come and help out at the store because my younger brother, Jim, he's just been, I mean, I think he worked six and a half days a week back then. He had a half day off a week. And my dad was working six days a week. And there I was, taking an hour and a half for lunch and flying to Japan to go shopping and it just felt pretty guilty.


Jim:

Well, I think from Jerry's answer you really get a lot of what it's like to work in a family business. The family business has its own dynamic. It's its own beast. You get to work and you got to deal with your dad, you got to deal with your brother. Our mom comes and gives us apples in the morning. There's this level of comfort. And you will find yourself getting angry and yelling at your dad, who is your boss. You don't want to be yelling at your boss, but you're yelling at your dad because you're disagreeing with him. But it works both ways. Your dad, when he's your boss, doesn't really take your opinion as seriously as your boss, who's just your boss, would. There's just a different level of respect. There's just a different respect from when you're coming from somewhere else. There's a different sort of proprietorship, a different sense of ownership with this, of course, that is kind of worth the work. It's something that you can hang your hat on.


Hatch:

I'm interested in what are the pros from a sense of day to day, having that honesty with your colleagues and family, how does that help you make the right decisions on a daily basis?


Jim:

I came from a corporate career before and I came from a job where my opinion truly mattered. I had a team of six people working for me there, which isn't huge, but I had six people working under me. They would listen to me. They did what I told them. And we had a pretty successful career together. Then coming here, all of a sudden I'm getting my dad coffee in the morning. I'm putting quarters in the meter for his car, getting the newspaper for him. And I'm like, "What is going on?" But the thing that's really important, I mean, a) I'm helping my family. Everything I do, even when it's as menial as buying my dad a newspaper because he doesn't want to go outside, I know for a fact that I'm actually saving my dad some energy. Also, the biggest pro is that every important decision I have to make doesn't help someone I don't know. It genuinely helps our family. Whereas before, I could make our company a million dollars and it really didn't matter to me.


Hatch:

How have you adapted to the pandemic with your business.


Jerry:

Of course, it's been rough. It's hit us heavy. Columbia is our main customer base and it actually took away some final exam projects from us. It took away our summer. And it took away our September school opening. I'm still hopeful on Christmas because that actually, we don't rely on the faculty and students for that as much. We do a lot more business with the families in the neighborhood for gift shopping and stuff. There's only so many major events in our year at the store. There's Christmas. There's September school opening. Amazingly, actually our summers are bustling because of the Columbia summer program. Then there's finals. There's four. The 2020 numbers on three of these four are bad. So we can scrape by day to day, which we've been doing. And Columbia has been helping us with the rent, but to take away the income, just the revenue from losing out on three of those major events for us, it's going to be ugly. We're scraping by. At times, it looks bleak.


Jim:

I do think we've been fortunate. It's not a secret. We've been around for a while so we have a pretty good relationship with the neighborhood. Gratefully, the neighborhood has been amazing to us. They've been nothing but supportive. It's so easy to dwell on all the negative things going on right now. I think our family in particular, we're really trying to focus on the positive things that are coming out of this, which is just the support we get from the neighborhood, even if it's just words of encouragement. I know it sounds silly, but it matters.

Right now my brother and I, we're basically working for free. We can't afford to bring our staff back at full capacity. So getting any kind of positive energy, it's tremendous right now. They're keeping us around. They're giving us a fighting chance and it sounds so silly to say this, but I feel like they've been there for us and we're trying to be there for them. We genuinely care about the neighborhood. We care about the people that come in. We try to take part in all the community events and services, things like that.

Jerry and Jim Ma at Janoff's Stationery wearing PPE


Jerry:

And just to elaborate a little bit more on the handling of the staff, it's been stressful knowing that this last round of stimulus is going to be running out soon, expiring soon. It's stressful thinking of some of our staff that we only have literally back for one day a week, knowing that they're going to need the income and we don't quite have the business to bring them in for the hours that they need.


Jim:

Our staff, just so you know, they've been with us for a long, literally over 20 years.


Jerry:

And we know we have a responsibility to them. I mean, honestly it comes rent, bills to pay, staff, that's the priority, basically. This is on the horizon and we're going to have to deal with this soon.

Hatch:

So what advice would you have for people looking to either get into the same industry as yours or really just starting their own business? What lessons have you learned from running Janoff's that you could give to them?


Jerry:

It's a labor of love. If you don't love it, it's just not going to work out.


Jim:

I think the one main thing that I've learned from my father, a lot of people that start businesses nowadays, whether it's a restaurant, a bar, clothing store, retail shop, there is a little bit of romanticism with owning your own spot. Some people, not everyone, but some people tend to think they can just hire staff and then go home. One thing I've learned from my father, from all these years, if you're involved with it, you better be there and you better be there all the time. You have to know everything that's going on, because if you don't, it's not your business then. So it's such a simple thing to say, but not as many people as you think follow it. You have to be there. You have to know exactly what's going on at all times and you have to care.

And it's such a simple, obvious answer. But it's not as obvious as you think. You step into our store, it's like going into a time machine. You're going back in time, literally. We don't even have a scanner. We don't have barcodes on our items. Everything is, you learn the price. You memorize the price. You learn where everything is because there is no machine or computer that's going to help you out with it. No machine is going to tell you that you have three of these items left and you just got to find them. You have to know yourself that there are three of those items left. So it really is an old-fashioned type of store. We either hear some people love it for that or some people might giggle at it. We tend to think it's more on the lovable side, personally. But I think that also speaks to just our philosophy that you've got to be there. You've got to be a part of it. It's got to be in you.


Hatch:

What advice would you have for another company trying to go through a pandemic? They're having similar issues that you're having, what advice would you have for them having gone through it yourself?


Jerry:

Be smart. We were open for a little while, we didn't even let anyone in the door. We kept a table at the door, we helped people there. They would tell us what they need and we went and got it for them. People were just grateful to be able to get some of the basic things that they needed from us. That felt good, helping people as much as we could. Moving forward, if there's a second wave, we're going to quickly go back to that. I think just make health a priority, safety a priority for yourself, for your staff, for your customers.

Customer paying at Janoff's door during COVID-19
Janoff's customer making her purchase at the door


Jim:

And care about the people that come into your store. I can't stress enough how important is to, especially after everything the neighborhood's been doing for us, build these relationships because they do matter. Not everything has to be via your phone. It's nice to see people in person, to greet someone, to have a conversation with them, to know who they are, to get to know their kids that you see growing up in front of you, every day. We get to develop real relationships with the people that come into our store. I don't take it for granted. I think it's great.

Sometimes when they come in, we get to ask them how their sons are doing in school, are they still writing and things like that. I gave one father, because he said his son, he's only 12 years old, but he thinks he's becoming a writer, so before he left the store I just gave him a small notebook to have for his son. I was like, "Just give it to him as a gift so that every good writer should have a small notebook in their pocket. He thought that was such a cool thing, just to get this notebook for his son to have. But that stuff matters to us. We want them to know that we actually care. We genuinely care.


Jerry:

I want to say one more thing to small business owners, because for us it's obviously Amazon is the big dog in town taking business away from everyone. But we're also up against some big box chains. Since April, I've been wondering if big box chains might really shift towards online sales only and close a lot of their brick-and-mortar stores. If that's the case, that presents opportunity to us, to people that are committed to mom-and-pop and have only identified as brick-and-mortar, mom-and-pop places. That seems to leave some opportunity for people who walk around the greatest city in the world and have nowhere to go, have nowhere to shop, have nowhere to browse, have nowhere to make a couple of simple purchases. That if more and more of these big box places go online, shift online, and I couldn't blame them if they want to, especially with COVID, how hard it's been to manage a staff during this time, if that's the case, perhaps that opens up some opportunity for the small guys like us and for a few others out there like us, perhaps there's something there.


Keep reading…

The Night Potter: Mammoth & Minnow

The Night Potter: Mammoth & Minnow

Financier by day, potter by night, Mary Lee shares how she used Instagram to grow her pottery business, Mammoth & Minnow, on Etsy while maintaining her full-time job.

Read more…
Entrepreneurship at 18: Audacity Cosmetics

Entrepreneurship at 18: Audacity Cosmetics

Monica Silva, who started her business at just 16 years old, shares her story of social media marketing success, and the struggles of being a young entrepreneur.

Read more…
How a Brewery Successfully Opened During COVID-19: Dr. Brewlittle's Beer Co.

How a Brewery Successfully Opened During COVID-19: Dr. Brewlittle's Beer Co.

Learn why Jack O'Connell was happy to open his first business, Dr. Brewlittle's Beer Co., during COVID-19, and how he used social media to form his community of loyal customers.

Read more…

It's Time to Hatch!

There's no catch with Hatch. Get fast and easy access to funds to grow your business.

Apply Now!