The unique neighborhoods of Manhattan, each with their own shops and restaurants, can make it seem as though several cities reside inside the borough. But as rents rise, mom-and-pop shops struggle to keep up and are often replaced by corporate stores that make the city more homogenized.
Still, some boutiques have managed to persevere, like the sister-and-sister business of Innasense Jewelry. The owners, Anyuta and Inna Zelikson, have been selling New Yorkers their beautiful gemstone jewelry designs for the past 14 years and have been able to grow from a stand at a Soho street fair to two Manhattan shops — one in the West Village and the other inside Grand Central Station.
It all started right after the tragedy of 9/11, when Anyuta, 25-years-old at the time, decided to leave her corporate marketing job to pursue a more creative endeavor that provided her with more meaning. Inspired by a trip to India, she decided to start the jewelry company with her sister Inna, who was then still a college student at CUNY Brooklyn.
However, neither knew much about the industry other than having an appreciation for gemstones. But with determination and some fortune of meeting the right people along the way, they have been able to learn how to source gems from around the world and design their own jewelry to the delights of New Yorkers.
“Not having a doubt was a very big thing for us. Failure was not an option,” says Anyuta. “I was never going back to corporate America.”
The fact that they’re best friends and say they easily agree with each other seems to have helped them get where they are today, but their path to success has not always been easy. As teenagers, they emigrated from Belarus as political refugees, arriving in Brooklyn with their parents. While they’ve since been able to pursue their own American Dream, when they started out they soon realized that running a business can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating.
At the end of their first season doing the Soho street fair in late 2001, the sisters were thrilled to walk away with an $840 profit. After they wrapped up at the market, they went to see a show in Brooklyn, but their fatigue set in and they fell asleep during the performance. When they woke up, the envelope with their hard-earned profit was gone.
Undeterred, Anyuta and Inna forged on and learned how to successfully run the business. After several years of hustling to display at as many New York street fairs and markets as possible — including the big holiday markets at Union Square, Bryant Park and Columbus Circle — they eventually found their West Village location, which opened in 2007. By 2009, they had their second location in Grand Central, which Anyuta says has kept them in business. And as fate would have it, nine years after they thought their season’s profit was stolen, they ended up finding the money tucked away in one of the bags they had been using at the market.
The fate of the West Village though may not be so cheery, as the charming neighborhood has been losing some of its soul. Parts of it are becoming a corporate high fashion parade, which has priced out smaller stores, as well as many of the creative residents the neighborhood has historically been known for.
The sisters say that when they first opened the shop at 10th Street and Bleecker, there were very few chain stores. Yet Manhattan’s rapid pace of changes has already made Innasense a dinosaur, as many boutiques have been phased out.
“It’s difficult to see that,” says Anyuta. “It’s not enough just to be creative. There are so many different elements that go into success, and it’s very elusive.”
In addition to benefiting from a lease that runs until 2020 at the West Village shop, the sisters attribute their success to zigging when the market zagged during the Great Recession.
“When everyone else went cheaper, we went more expensive,” says Anyuta. “There was so much cheap product out there but not enough good product that was well priced.”
Not everything is unattainably priced for the average New Yorker, as the jewelry starts at $95 but goes up to $5000 to serve the high end clientele of Manhattan. And each item is available in limited quantities, adding to the allure of the designs. The sisters also each have their own design style, with Inna creating more delicate pieces while Anyuta creates bolder ones. Some items are even a hybrid that they design together.
Photo credits: Inaya Jewelry
In order to stay competitive, the company is also expanding into an online channel, called Inaya Jewelry (They’re also considering changing the stores’ name to Inaya.).
But even if they have to move from their West Village location, they intend to always have a physical store in New York, as they want customers to be able to really appreciate the gemstones up close and be able to interact with them.
.At the West Village store, “the vibe is that we can really spend time with someone and give them the opportunity to truly fall in love with this space and our creations,” says Inna.
And while the sisters are from Brooklyn and Inna still lives there (Anyuta lives in Battery Park), Manhattan in particular holds a special place in their hearts. While on one hand it can be hard for a store to survive here, in some ways the local environment helps a business like theirs thrive.
“Manhattan has a very unique clientele,” says Anyuta. “New Yorkers are very interesting people who appreciate good things. They recognize [good quality] and not everyone does.”
Even as Manhattan changes, many classic spots have been able to persevere, and not every borough could necessarily support a business like Innasense.
“Brooklyn is too cool,” says Inna. “And this is timeless.”