Retail Scene: Smith & Chang General Goods

One weekend in January, in a quaint general store in upstate New York, Sawyer Smith stumbled upon a pair of taxidermied quails nested in some shrubbery under a small glass dome. The item seemed perfect for Smith & Chang General Goods, the new housewares boutique Smith co-owns with his partner of 15 years, Alex Chang. So he snatched it up (he says he doesn’t remember how much he paid), and put it on display in the store.

A few weeks later, on February 13, a young woman, perhaps on the hunt for a quirky Valentine’s Day gift, bought the kitschy curiosity for $185. Within the next 24 hours, two additional customers who had seen the piece came in looking to buy it, and Chang had to break the news that it had already flown off the shelves.

“We keep selling out of stuff,” Smith says the following day, while showing NEW around the sleek, light-filled boutique on the ground floor of the new Hamilton Park development on Erie Street. Chang putters nearby, tending the store’s potted houseplants. “Our vendors are surprised,” Smith adds. “We’ll call to reorder and they’re like, ‘Oh really?'”

Over the past few years, Jersey City has seen a handful of new upscale boutiques crop up. There’s Kanibal Home on Montgomery Street near City Hall; DEEN on Bay Street in the Powerhouse Arts District; Vivi Girl on Jersey Avenue; and now Smith & Chang, which opened on Jan. 1 right by Hamilton Park. It’s a sign, perhaps, that Downtown Jersey City, with its beloved, albeit limited, selection of cute and cozy shops and restaurants, is more and more beginning to resemble the trendier enclaves of Manhattan and Brooklyn, where one expects to find such amenities on every corner.

“Our real passion is creating small neighborhood businesses,” says Smith. He and Chang, who both work in real estate, have been investing in the area for the past decade. (Perhaps you’ve heard of the cafes Basic and Beechwood, or Bar Majestic, all three of which they’ve had a hand in.)

“It’s about more than opening a business and making money,” Smith continues. “If I just wanted to make money I’d probably go to Manhattan. It’s about building and restoring the neighborhood.”

In 1999, Smith and Chang were in the market to open a coffee shop, which at the time seemed like a more plausible venture this side of the Hudson River given the pricey rents that were becoming common in New York neighborhoods like Williamsburg, where they lived. So when they heard about an available storefront in Jersey City, they didn’t hesitate to check it out.

The space, in a rundown building on the corner of Erie and 8th Street that had been abandoned for 15 years, was in need of a total renovation, but the pair found it charming. And even though they thought the neighborhood seemed a little too quiet, they saw potential. They signed a lease almost immediately. Nine months later, Basic Cafe was born.

“We were really worried at the beginning,” Chang recalls. “When we were working on renovating, you’d look out the window and nobody was walking around. But as soon as we opened we had people coming in to support it. People were really just waiting for things to open.”

Indeed, on the first day of business, Smith recalls, there was a line out the door.

“We were totally overwhelmed!” he says. “We sold out of food and coffee.” And apparently they were sold on the neighborhood, too — they moved here shortly after 9/11 into a brownstone rental near Hamilton Park.

Smith and Chang sold Basic in 2002 and opened a Manhattan real estate brokerage. A few years later, in 2005, Smith was working on revamping Bar Majestic on Grove Street with Jersey City developer Paul Silverman, when he noticed a dearth of coffeeshops within walking distance of the PATH station a few blocks away.

The street could use something like Basic, he thought, and there happened to be a spacious storefront up for lease on the corner of Mercer Street. It was a little too big to be just a cafe. So he and Silverman signed the lease and created a cafe-cum-restaurant with a small adjacent retail space. They named it Beechwood, which opened in March of that year and has since become one of the most popular local eateries. (Try getting seated for brunch on a Sunday afternoon.)

“There’s always been enough people here, it’s just that for a long time there were no services, nothing really interesting,” Smith says.

Would he call it gentrification?

“There’s always that tension between keeping the neighborhood the way it was, and neighborhoods changing,” he says, “but we’ve always felt like part of the community. We haven’t felt like outsiders.”

Of course, in a neighborhood where other unique mom and pop stores seem to come and go, and where you can still have trouble buying a slice of pizza after the bars close, you have to wonder how essential a boutique that sells 100-dollar-plus taxidermied birds is.

“There are probably other things the neighborhood needs more, but this is what we really wanted to do,” says Smith. “People appreciate the fact that we’ve brought something to the neighborhood that most people wouldn’t expect. They’re shocked we did this here, but I think that’s even a better reason to do it.”

And they’ve done it well. The selection of housewares and ephemera is carefully curated and eclectic, with a focus on local and ecologically oriented products like beeswax candles and goat-milk soaps. There’s a prominent stock of locally produced accessories like shopping bags from Bag the Habit, leather goods by Billykirk and hand-stitched baby blankets by Owl and Elephant.

They comb the flea markets of New England, upstate New York and Paris for one-of-a-kind treasures like those nesting quails. There’s an ever-evolving selection of vintage mirrors, light fixtures and rugs, carefully selected furniture items like a vintage high-boy dresser, and a wide range of 1800s Tennesse-made cast iron cookery.

“We always wanted to have a small department store,” says Smith, explaining that the shop is constantly adding to its inventory based on what people are interested in and asking for. “This is our version of that.”

Smith and Chang want to imprint their brand on more neighborhoods. They plan to open additional boutiques in Brooklyn, Manhattan and elsewhere in New Jersey, as well as expanding to the web. Locally, they’re also looking forward to hosting a barbecue festival in Hamilton Park this July, and to the opening of new retail and restaurants nearby, like the Hamilton Inn (formerly the Hamilton Park Ale House) and the Hamilton Health and Fitness club.

“The neighborhood is just brimming with possibility at this point,” says Chang.

SmithChang.com is located at 230 Pavonia Ave.

This article originally appeared in Spring/Summer 2010 issue of NEW (now JCI Magazine).

Photos: Steve Gold

a Jersey City–based editor and writer whose work has appeared in Salon, Radar, Playgirl, Time Out New York and The New York Observer.