May 26, 2017

Prototype: A Lawyer With a Taste for Soy Sauce and a High Tolerance for Pain

Flummoxed by the discrepancy, he researched how soy sauce is made and learned that it is a fermented natural product, like beer, wine or cheese.


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The complexity of its production makes it prime for nuance, he said, but the soy sauces he had tasted up to then were consistently mundane — “analogous to something like ‘Two-Buck Chuck’ or Budweiser.”

He couldn’t understand why people didn’t expect more from sushi condiments. “If someone can pay 15 bucks for one piece of bluefin tuna, they can pay 15 bucks for a bottle of soy sauce that they’re going to put on every piece of fish,” he said he thought.

Soon, Mr. Blum was making trips to far-flung corners of Japan to sample the soy sauces produced by small family breweries with centuries-old traditions. With an interpreter in tow, he met with the owners to discuss their concoctions, and he snapped up small bottles of sauces to try out in sushi restaurants. In tasting more than 150 sauces, he found a wide range of colors, from white to inky black, and flavors that included coffee and chocolate.

Mr. Blum’s initial idea was to start his own brewery in the United States. But making soy sauce takes a long time; brewing a single batch can take two years. (Batch sizes vary depending on the size of the brewery.) So he decided to import artisanal sauces in the hopes of creating a market for them here. Eventually, he would like to start his own brewery.

When Mr. Blum was growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1970s and early 1980s, his family made frequent trips to New York City sushi bars and to Mott Street in Chinatown, which he considers “a proto-foodie scene of the era,” he said. But the soy sauce he tasted back then was never on par with the food itself. He remembers red-capped bottles left out on the restaurants’ tables, filled with bitter, sour liquid emitting a “caustic” aroma.

Mr. Blum’s gusto for food led to a job at a French restaurant when he was in high school, and it has trickled into his legal career. His clients at the Cornerstone Law Group in San Francisco, where he practices business law, include restaurants and food producers. He is a principal of the firm.

When Mr. Blum decided to pursue Shiso as a side business, he continued to spend most of his time working at Cornerstone. It helped that the firm is not set up as a traditional partnership; it is made up of lawyers who work their own cases individually.

A plant where Jonathan Blum bottled his Shiso soy sauce, which costs $16 to $18 for a 3.4-ounce container. Credit Esme Watson

It gave him more freedom to develop Shiso, including the ability to make trips to Japan that lasted at least two weeks. And it provided a steady source of income, which meant he didn’t need to take on investors.


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Although Mr. Blum has spent the bulk of his legal career advising businesses, starting his own company was more complicated than he had expected.

He could not have anticipated Shiso Soy’s first major setback, which occurred a few years before the trip to the town dump. Just as he was completing the logistics and regulatory paperwork to import sauces from a Japanese brewery in the Fukushima prefecture, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck, followed by the worst nuclear meltdown since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Suddenly, his business was in jeopardy, but far worse, he wasn’t sure if the brewery and its owners had even survived.

“I was trying to call them up to see if they were still alive,” Mr. Blum said. “It was terrible. I’d become friends with those people.” They were indeed alive, but “nothing got exported from Japan after that,” he said.

He had to re-evaluate the future of Shiso Soy and decide whether to abandon it or find a new brewery and wait for trade with Japan to resume. He persevered.

“I believe in it,” he says. “I love it. I mean, you suck it up and double down.”

In addition to this passion for his product, Mr. Blum was extremely patient — a trait that benefits anyone trying to set off a new culinary movement, according to Lance Winters, the master distiller at the craft distillery St. George Spirits.

Mr. Winters sees parallels between the soy sauce and spirits industries. After World War II, both became “industrialized commodities instead of something where there’s passion and artistry really driving them,” Mr. Winters said. It took 20 years for consumers to develop a taste for craft gins and vodkas, he noted, because they had grown accustomed to limited options.

To educate St. George’s consumers to a different style of spirits, the company asked bartenders to help with marketing. Mr. Winters believes it will be equally important for Shiso to find “the right sushi chefs who will put this in front of their customers, and say, ‘This is different. This is better. This is what I recommend you use,’” he said.


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But that approach would probably require sushi restaurants to alter their business models. Currently, sushi eaters at restaurants dunk their fish in soy sauce that sits out on tables and is free, just like ketchup at a burger restaurant. The retail price of a gallon of Kikkoman soy sauce is $15; Shiso Soy Sauce is significantly more expensive at $16 and $18 for a 3.4-ounce bottle. For restaurants to carry Shiso sauces, they would probably need to charge for it.

So far, some of his food industry contacts have predicted that chefs might be resistant, Mr. Blum said. He is hiring someone to help market the sauces to chefs and restaurants. For now, he is focused on selling them online with the idea that consumers might take the sauces to sushi restaurants for their personal consumption.

Mr. Winters expects the artisanal soy sauce market to develop faster than craft spirits did, partly because the so-called maker movement is now so robust.

“People are making sausage at home,” Mr. Winters pointed out. “They’re making condiments of their own at home. People are fascinated by process.”

“Whereas before, if people saw a brand they didn’t recognize,” he said, “they would automatically steer away. Now they steer toward it.”

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How He Got There: Christopher Gray on How to Be a Social Entrepreneur

Christopher Gray pitched Scholly on “Shark Tank” while still a student. Credit via Christopher Gray

Christopher Gray’s first job title after graduation was C.E.O. As the son of a single mother who lost her job during the recession, he knew he would need considerable financial aid to pay for college. After seven strenuous months of searching for scholarships, dodging scams and writing (and recycling) essays on leadership and community service, he raised $1.3 million. Then, as a student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, he turned his experience into a social enterprise — an app called Scholly that matches students with a personalized list of scholarships. Scholly soared to No. 1 in the iOS App Store after Mr. Gray pitched it on “Shark Tank.” In three years, Scholly has been downloaded over a million times and has helped students raise more than $50 million.

Mr. Gray — now 25, one of Forbes’s “30 Under 30” and Oprah Winfrey’s “SuperSoul 100” — shares advice for students hoping to launch a sustainable social venture.

Find Your Motivation

Being from Birmingham, Ala., you tend to want to get out of Birmingham, Ala. I wanted to be a tech entrepreneur. I wanted to escape and get to a place where I could do that. My brother and sister were 4 and 2 at the time I was going to college. I wanted to break the cycle and create a better life for them. They now have someone they can see who’s different than what’s around them. All the success is just surreal, and it’s emotional. When I started Scholly, my goal wasn’t to make a billion dollars. It was to help a lot of people.

The ‘Aha’ Moment

Realizing there’s a big market, that’s when I knew this could be a business. At Drexel I was around a lot of kids who had different backgrounds. I saw, it’s not just me. Both parents could make 100K, but they have three kids in college. They need scholarships, too.

Make a Deal

To get on “Shark Tank,” my advice would be to find a producer and have a conversation. A producer spoke to one of my friends at Drexel and I ran up to ask for an introduction. I pitched my story and ended up calling him, like, six times. Be persistent. The producer I talked to had to find scholarships of his own, so he understood. Find people who identify with what you’re doing.


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Leverage Your Peers

You have a lot of people around you who want to get experience and will work for free. And a lot of your friends have connections. One of my investors is Springleaf and that came from a guy I partied with. His dad is the C.E.O.

Leverage Your University

Your university wants your success as much as you do. I was a student when I appeared on “Shark Tank.” That’s a big thing for the school. Drexel helped promote us. Your university has tons of networking events and marketing opportunities. Students don’t have money, so we have to figure out the most inexpensive way to get the word out there.

Tap Student-Specific Cash

There are so many funding opportunities specifically for students. I think students miss that sometimes. I won $75,000 from Cupid’s Cup, an entrepreneurship competition for students and recent graduates. At Drexel, I won $32,000 in an incubator competition.


When you’re a student, you study hard for a test and you make an A. You have a degree of control over your success. When you’re an entrepreneur, you can work eight months on a deal and it may not go through. Markets change. Investors change their minds. When that happens, be resilient. Students may not be used to dealing with that yet. If a little boy from Birmingham, Ala., can go to college, pay for it and build a successful company before the age of 25, so can you.

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As Strollers Roll Through New York City Grit and Muck, an Industry Is Born

Illustration by Kaye Blegvad

There is nothing more emblematic of New York City baby life than the beat-up stroller. In this walking city, strollers become homes on wheels, where babies and toddlers log long hours eating, napping and playing.

Parents and caregivers thump these portable playpens and high chairs down subway steps, bump them over broken curbs, and drag them through snow and puddles of who knows what. Their carry baskets hide yesterday’s snack crumbs, crumpled art projects, splashed coffee and grit from the sandbox. They moonlight as grocery carts and extra storage, and mark the passage of time with ever-accruing layers of stain.

“Just like you would buy a minivan if you had a couple of kids, we buy huge strollers,” Katelyn Taylor, 32, said she tells her relatives in the Midwest. She regularly turns heads by toting four children around the Upper East Side in a single Uppababy Vista stroller, balancing two toddlers on the running board and two infants in the double seats. (Two are hers; two she watches for a friend.)

With that kind of use, strollers tend to get filthy. And as perhaps should be expected in this era, when web-based services are springing up to handle everything from dog walking to errand running, and especially in a city known for its entrepreneurial spirit, a fledging stroller-cleaning industry is emerging to deal with the mess.

In New York, baby strollers are particularly adept at picking up the dirt, dust and the other unmentionables of a New York City street. Credit Bryan Thomas for The New York Times

Two very different businesses, one national, one local, are vying for a slice of this market in Manhattan. In the homegrown corner is Baby Bubbles, a mom-and-pop shop tucked into a quiet side street on the Upper East Side. The store is painted light blue and white, with a row of tiny white baby clothes hanging from a clothesline in the window. The vibe is meant to be part spa, part New England farmhouse, and to emphasize that the store cleans baby clothes, too.

The owner, Seth Mittman, 39, opened the store about 18 months ago, after becoming a father and noticing that each stroller parked outside the pediatrician’s office was dirtier than the next. “This cannot happen,” he said he remembers telling his wife. Mr. Mittman started cleaning friends’ strollers in the bathtub of his Upper East Side apartment, and when he realized he had a viable business idea, he quit his job in advertising sales and went all the way. (The family has since moved to Wayne, N.J.)


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Baby Bubbles is small, so all the scrubbing these days is done in the store basement by an employee, Jose Nuñez, 29, a father of two from the Bronx who brings his own baby gear to clean on the weekends. His key tools are a scrub brush, All Free and Clear detergent, and a $3,500 dry vapor steam cleaner usually used for car detailing.

When Mr. Nuñez got a hold of a Joolz stroller last week — a $1,200 Australian import — he took apart the fabric seat and started vacuuming the bottom bin. A funky smell rose from its depths, with notes of old cheese, fish and perhaps the nasty puddle that the owner, Tali Roth, said had driven her to seek professional help.

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“I try not to breathe through my nose,” Mr. Nuñez said.

With the deluxe cleaning package, which costs $75, Baby Bubbles disassembles and sanitizes the stroller, details the wheels with Armor All and wraps them up in plastic wrap, a process that takes about 60 to 90 minutes. Pick up and delivery are free in most of Manhattan and a portion of Brooklyn, and the job is usually done in a day. The company also cleans strollers donated to a charity, called NYC Mammas Give Back, at no charge.

Baby Bubbles’s competitor, Tot Squad, has a location in a Midtown office building and juggernaut-like aspirations. Its founder, Jennifer Beall Saxton, 33, came up with the idea for a baby-gear cleaning and repair business while a student at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She wants to be to strollers and car seats what the Geek Squad is to computer repair.

“I think that sometimes if you can find something that no one else wants to do and you do it for them, there is a business opportunity there,” she said in a telephone interview.

Tot Squad’s main location is in Los Angeles, where it sets up in front of businesses like Whole Foods and Babies “R” Us and cleans car seats and strollers while parents shop. Ms. Saxton’s dream is to develop her partnerships to the point that when a parent buys an expensive stroller at a major retailer it will come with a service plan from her company.

Jose Nuñez steam cleans a car seat at Baby Bubbles, a shop on the Upper East Side. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Tot Squad’s New York location has no storefront, so items must be dropped off in the building lobby. It is more expensive; a full-service stroller cleaning with wheel detailing costs $119, plus $50 to $75 for pickup and drop-off. “New York City strollers are exponentially dirtier” than strollers elsewhere, Ms. Saxton said.

She has seen baby gear stained with cat urine, covered with spider webs and chewed through by mice. Mold, she thinks, is the toughest stain — she charges an extra $25 to remove it. Vomit does not even raise her eyebrows. “Carsick kids keep me in business,” she said.


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Mr. Mittman, who also washes and folds baby clothes for about $1 a pound, says he thinks New York is a unique market for baby-gear cleaning because of all the busy working parents who do not have a washing machine in their homes. So he is not planning on opening other locations.

His bread and butter are people like Ms. Roth. An interior designer from the Columbus Circle area, Ms. Roth had considered professional stroller cleaning pretentious — until her stroller got soaked by a Central Park puddle so disgusting she could not stomach putting her toddler back in it.

The stroller is now “lovely and gorgeous and feels brand-new,” she said. Even if “by January it will look like it was never cleaned.”

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Start-Ups for the End of Life

A new crop of tech start-ups is hoping to capture a slice of that sector. Many are founded by millennials, who have grown up online and expect to shop for — and curate — everything there.


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As baby boomers become more comfortable shopping online, these start-ups are finding a highly engaged audience. And those in their 20s and 30s, hitting major life events like marriage, the birth of a child or the loss of a parent, also require planning services.

The typical customer would be someone like Michelle LaBerge, a resident of Oshkosh, Wis., who recently turned 50 and helped her parents move into an assisted living community. Those events reminded her that she needed to get her own affairs in order.

She was put off, however, by the hassle and expense of having to consult a lawyer. But when she ran across a Groupon offer in February from a start-up called Willing, which provides state-specific estate planning documents online that can be updated any time, she decided to try it.

For $30, Ms. LaBerge created a will customized to suit her particular circumstances. “It was very easy,” she said. “I compared it to my parents’ will, done by an attorney, and it looked the same.”

The founders of Willing, Eliam Medina and Rob Dyson, wanted to create a platform that allowed users to complete their own estate planning documents like a will, power of attorney and health care directive.

“If you look at what TurboTax has done for tax planning, we wanted to do the same thing for estate planning,” said Mr. Medina, the company’s chief executive.

An early version of the platform was introduced in Florida in January 2015. Consumers were invited to try the service free and about 500 wills were created, Mr. Medina said. That summer, Willing, based in Miami, went through the start-up incubator Y Combinator, where it expanded to all 50 states. The company has raised $7 million. Mr. Medina says 25,000 wills a month are created on the platform.

Until the 2008 recession, the funeral industry had largely been unchanged, said David Nixon, president of Nixon Consulting, which works with funeral home owners. But since then, consumers have been actively looking for deals and other ways to simplify the funeral process.


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Enter the start-up Parting, founded about a year ago in Los Angeles, an online directory of funeral homes searchable by ZIP code, which allows users to compare prices and services, and view the homes’ locations.

A team of people posing as shoppers seeks out pricing and services information from funeral homes that are unaware the information is for the site. An increasing number of funeral directors, however, are voluntarily working with Parting to put their information in the database, which now has more than 15,000 funeral homes.

It is backed by an angel investor and is increasing about 27 percent a month in searches and visitors, said Tyler Yamasaki, a founder.

Still, it has been an uphill battle getting these traditionally small, mom-and-pop companies to promote themselves, Mr. Yamasaki said.

“It’s a big, slow industry and a lot of these funeral homes aren’t open to start-ups,” he said. Funeral homes can get a free basic listing on Parting or pay for a premium listing, which increases their visibility. If a home gets a customer through the listing, Parting collects 12 to 15 percent of the funeral bill as its fee.

Another start-up in Los Angeles, Grace, is tackling all of the issues that can overwhelm family members coping with grief after the death of a loved one. There is little guidance about what to do when someone dies, said Alex Kruger, Grace’s co-founder and chief executive.

“Like what are the 60 things I need to do in the next three months? At Grace we say, ‘Here are the 17 things you need to do this week’ and you can check them off as you do them. Here’s what you do the week before someone dies, when they die and then two weeks later.”

Today, most of Grace’s customers call in and are helped by staff members who are also licensed funeral directors — including Mr. Kruger and his co-founders. “In some ways death is still handled by talking to other people,” he said.


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Grace connects families with vetted providers, including estate lawyers, financial planners, funeral homes and caterers. Customers receive a list of tasks to complete before and after a death, including the necessary paperwork, but the staff can also help with funeral planning, filling out forms and other tasks.

Mr. Kruger said Grace has had some unusual requests, like shipping a body to Romania and closing a deceased individual’s Tinder account.

The company, founded in June, has raised under $2 million in seed funding and transactions are growing about 20 percent a month. Grace’s services are offered only in Southern California, but Mr. Kruger said they would be in Northern California by the end of the year and in additional states next year.

Possibly the most difficult situation consumers face is to decide how to be cared for at the end of their lives, and communicating that to family members.

Cake, a start-up in Boston created at M.I.T.’s Hacking Medicine conference’s Grand Hack in 2015, helps users decide end-of-life preferences, like the extent of life support or what to do with their Facebook page. It then stores the choices in the cloud and shares them with those who are designated.

The start-up has been self-financed until now but is now closing a seed round, said Suelin Chen, a founder and chief executive.

The platform asks users a series of questions to help them determine their preferences. Their answers are used to populate their Cake profile, to which they can add notes and instructions to family members or friends.

An environmentalist, for instance, could learn that others sharing his green values donated their bodies to science. Or the person could arrange for a biodegradable burial.

“People get very inspired by what other people do. It’s a part of living,” Ms. Chen said. And now it’s part of dying, too.

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Small Factories Emerge as a Weapon in the Fight Against Poverty

For the first three decades of Marlin’s existence, the company almost exclusively made simple, sturdy, welded-wire bagel baskets. As the Jewish breakfast staple exploded in popularity outside the Northeast, Marlin prospered along with it.


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But by the early 2000s, the bagel craze was fading, and the popularity of the Atkins diet and carb-phobia started hurting bagel sales. China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 presented traditional manufacturers — and what is more old-school than bagel baskets? — with an existential threat.

Chinese versions of Marlin’s products were selling for $6 each, or less than what the steel alone cost in Marlin’s baskets. The other $5 that Marlin charged, to cover salaries, taxes, equipment and a sliver of profit, was now just red ink.

Mr. Greenblatt did what organisms threatened with extinction have always done to survive: He evolved.

He moved the factory to Baltimore in 1999, with eight of his Brooklyn employees following him, including one who is still working on the floor. Then he began going after what economists call value-added goods, products that were more specialized and sophisticated what than the Chinese were making, and therefore able to command higher prices.

But producing baskets with very specific requirements, or tolerances, as they are known, for automakers or aerospace giants could not be achieved by hand. “If a bagel falls out the bottom, that’s 10 cents,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “A single airplane part can cost thousands of dollars, so there’s no room for error.”

Over the course of a decade, he invested in robots that churned out baskets almost a hundred times as fast as human beings. He trained his workers to operate the robots, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, and hired engineers to help design ever-more-sophisticated products to win customers and stay ahead of overseas rivals.

“In Brooklyn, eight fellows could do 300 bends an hour,” Mr. Greenblatt recalled. “Now two guys running robots can do 25,000 bends per hour.”


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Today, in fact, many of Marlin’s robot-made baskets are designed specifically to be handled by other robots.

Automation did not mean the elimination of jobs — in fact, it saved the company. But it does mean producing many more baskets with only a few more workers. So, while Marlin’s revenue has grown to over $5 million today, from $800,000 when Mr. Greenblatt arrived, the company’s work force has increased by just a third, to 24 people from 18 people.

Marlin’s comeback isn’t exactly a secret. In 2012, the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, visited the plant. Mr. Greenblatt is a well-known booster in industry circles.

Less publicized is how the company’s survival has transformed the lives of its workers, even as the Westport neighborhood around the factory, and other poor sections of Baltimore, remain deeply scarred. “Some are dead, some are locked up,” said Edward Derrill, 23, of the guys he grew up with in West Baltimore. “I didn’t want to end up like that.”

With an associate’s degree in computer science from Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, workers like Mr. Derrill can earn at least $50,000 a year. Besides health insurance, they also have access to a 401(k) plan and two weeks’ paid vacation, a rarity at many local employers.

“You can work your way up and get raises,” he said. Mr. Derrill hopes to become a team leader soon, supervising other workers. Marlin also pays for its employees to go back to school and get degrees in related subjects like engineering, giving workers who never had a chance to attend college additional options.

Nationwide and for men in particular, whether black or white, the erosion of manufacturing work has been especially devastating.

Drew Greenblatt, owner of Marlin Steel, said, “This isn’t theoretical. Manufacturing bootstraps people out of poverty.” Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

In the 1950s, says Lawrence Katz, a prominent labor economist at Harvard, nearly one-third of the men who went to work after high school were employed in factories. Those jobs and that era are never coming back, Mr. Katz said, “but a job as a physical therapist or a home health aide doesn’t fit the identity of someone who is a welder or a machinist.”


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And while not all the workers at Marlin are men — the split is about 80-20 — for many blue-collar men there and elsewhere, the idea of working with one’s hands and building things is closely connected to finding a purpose in life, and in the workplace. “I call it an identity mismatch, and I think it’s a huge issue for men,” Mr. Katz said. “Pure physical labor isn’t much valued today, but we need to try and rebuild the service sector for men without college degrees.”

Brent Fox, 34, served with the Marine Corps in Iraq and is now the weekend shift supervisor at Marlin, a position that can pay well over $50,000 a year. While the money is a draw, Mr. Fox also said working in a service-type role doesn’t appeal to him.

“‘You want fries with that?’ No way,” he said. “I like being able to take raw material and make it into something. There’s pride in making things — you don’t get that in a lot of service jobs.”

New employers have appeared in Baltimore, including an Amazon warehouse that employs more than 3,000. But with hourly wages of over $15 an hour, that is still less than what most Marlin workers earn.

“This isn’t theoretical,” Mr. Greenblatt said, shouting over the din of metal pounding on metal. “Manufacturing bootstraps people out of poverty.”

‘Honest, Hard Work’

Up Annapolis Road from the small industrial park that Marlin calls home, in the Westport neighborhood, the deindustrialization of urban America wreaked havoc. Derelict rowhouses line the streets, with rotting stoops and garbage-filled yards. Only 6 percent of residents have college degrees, and more than a quarter do not have a high school diploma.

“Try to get a job,” said John Brooks, who has lived in Westport for most of his 63 years. “They won’t hire people from here.”

Ticking off Baltimore employers of yesteryear — like Bethlehem Steel, and Carr Lowrey, a glassmaker that shut its doors in 2003 after 114 years down by the Patapsco River — Mr. Brooks shook his head.


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“McDonald’s, you might not even get that,” he said. “There used to be plenty of factories here. You didn’t even need a high school diploma to work at Bethlehem Steel.”

Once upon a time, Mr. Branch, the Marlin machine operator, also lacked a high school diploma. He earned one through an equivalency test, and later helped other prisoners earn their G.E.D.s during his time inside.

After Popeyes and his course at the Magna Baltimore Technical Training Center, Mr. Branch landed a job at Crown Cork Seal in a suburb of Baltimore. “I don’t know if anyone else would have taken a chance on me,” he said.

In the autumn of 2015, after 123 years of making cans in Baltimore, Crown Cork Seal shut down the plant where Mr. Branch worked. But he was determined to find another manufacturing position and not go back to the streets.

“The worst feeling in the world was watching my kids get up and leave after they visited me in prison,” he recalled. “I promised them I wouldn’t put them through that again.”

Mr. Greenblatt had worked with Magna, and when a headhunter steered Mr. Branch to Marlin Steel, it was a natural fit. “I like being creative,” Mr. Branch said, as he entered figures that would determine the diameter and angles of the parts that his machine produces.

“God gave me a lot of blessings,” he said. “When you lived that life on the corner, you never knew which day would be your last. Now I can come home, sit on my couch, look at my big-screen TV and appreciate it because it came from honest, hard work. That’s a great feeling, and nothing can take that away.”

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On Brink of a Sale, Family Shop in Chinatown Stays in Family

“They are leaving a big pile of cash on the table for their heritage,” said the broker, Will Suarez, a director at the commercial real estate company Cushman Wakefield.

Mei Lum, 26, is taking over the operation and re-envisions the store as a community space in a gentrifying Chinatown. Credit Alex Wroblewski/The New York Times

Wing on Wo’s salvation appeared in Mei Lum, 26, the second-youngest of the family’s five grandchildren. She turned down acceptance to graduate school at Columbia University last May to interrupt the store’s sale and offered to take it over. She is now reinventing the shop, molding it into a community space that operates against the backdrop of Chinatown’s history. The antiques will become secondary; instead, she envisions a forum for panels on issues like neighborhood politics, exhibitions for local artists and a coffee shop. Ms. Lum held an event recently at the store on the neighborhood’s gentrification, and a planned panel will include influential businesswomen from Chinatown. She calls her concept the “W.O.W. Project.”

Ms. Lum was traveling in China when her father in New York called to inform her that her grandparents, Nancy and Shuck Seid, 86 and 92, were selling the shop. Mrs. Seid, who inherited the shop from her father’s family, managed it for decades, while Mr. Seid worked for years as a clerk in the New York Police Department’s Fifth Precinct in Chinatown. Mrs. Seid said she was exhausted and wanted to spend time with her aging husband, who now speaks little and is in a wheelchair.


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“Every little thing becomes a problem when you get old,” Mrs. Seid said, surrounded by family at Wing on Wo on a recent afternoon. “You don’t want to deal with things anymore. So I told them: Sell the damn thing.”

Mei’s father, Gary Lum, 61, sat beneath the shop’s dusty industrial ceiling fan. “On the one hand, you want to walk into the sunset,” he said. “But you also have to consider what it means to close something like this after all these years.”

Ms. Lum’s early fascination with Chinese history set her apart from the other grandchildren. Growing up in Chinatown, she relished afternoons with her tradition-minded grandfather, who taught her Cantonese and the teachings of Confucius. Any skepticism from friends about passing up a prestigious education, she said, weighed on her only momentarily.

“The wheels were turning. It was on the market. I had to act fast,” Ms. Lum said. “You’re supposed to get all these shiny things and then go onto better things, right? But I had to think about my impact. How can I make a global impact if I haven’t even had an impact on my own community? Graduate school will always be there. This won’t.”

Ceramics for sale at Wing on Wo Co. Credit Alex Wroblewski/The New York Times

Wellington Chen, the director of Chinatown’s business improvement district, pondered the shop’s new chapter and said Ms. Lum was challenging a troubling neighborhood narrative. “These children get the degree or the big job or the car, and then no one ever comes back,” he said. “That is the problem we have with young people in Chinatown now. Can she make the shop relevant? We have to see. But I applaud her for coming back, because no one is coming back.”

Ms. Lum’s new vision for Wing on Wo, ironically, resembles the store’s original incarnation over 100 years ago, when Chinatown spanned just Pell, Doyers, Bayard and Mott Streets, and was populated by people who felt very far from home.

General stores like Wing on Wo were crucial hubs in this early village-like stretch. They sold tastes of home like dried fish, herbs and tofu, but they also operated as social clubs, representing Chinese villages and counties, and provided mail and money-wiring services.

Ms. Lum’s great-great-grandfather, Walter Eng, opened Wing on Wo at 13 Mott Street, opposite the shop’s current location (it moved in 1925). It was a dimly lighted place, family members said, filled with men in felt hats who smoked Lucky Strikes and drank Martinson coffee while playing mah-jongg to pass the time. A roast pig usually hung from a ceiling, and there was a resident herbalist.

Mrs. Seid inherited the shop in 1964, recasting the general store as a purveyor of antiques and porcelain (“I wasn’t going to cut meat,” she said indignantly). When the United States’ trade relations with China reopened after President Nixon’s 1972 trip there, she began annual buying trips with her husband. They would send back loads of plates and teapots from Hong Kong in stamped wooden crates; 200 of these crates collect dust in the shop’s basement, and Ms. Lum started a contest for local artists to re-envision them (an extra-long skateboard and a garden bench are among the entries).


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Many old businesses in Chinatown did not survive the economic slump after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The day brought a personally searing loss for Wing on Wo: The Seids’ only son and heir apparent to the store, Stuart, died in the south tower. “It took years out of them,” said Mei’s father, Gary Lum. “They were planning to retire then but had to pull themselves up from their bootstraps all over again.”

Like other stores, Wing on Wo Co. on Mott Street was a community hub in its early days, selling familiar foods and offering postal services and wiring money. Credit Alex Wroblewski/The New York Times

Today, Chinatown’s youth show little interest in staying in the neighborhood. “The soil is loose for the new generation,” Mr. Lum added. “The older folks dug their toes into the soil of this neighborhood. They lived, played, worked, and celebrated in it.”

He commended his daughter’s sensibilities. “It was never about the gold ring for her,” he said. “Or to want Jaguars, Tag Heuers, or a house in the Hamptons. I didn’t raise her like that.”

The Seids seemed pleased to be free of Wing on Wo’s burdens one recent Saturday morning at the shop. They had just finished one of their standing dim sum breakfasts at Ping’s next door. David Eng, a family friend, stood by Mr. Seid, who sat calmly in his wheelchair, wearing a felt cap.

“My father always told me when I was growing up: This is a good man,” Mr. Eng said. “He didn’t say that about a lot of people.”

The Seids soon departed to their apartment in the nearby Chatham Towers complex, and Mr. Eng, who had been giving advice to Ms. Lum, returned to his shop, Fong Inn Too, which has made tofu in the area since 1931.

“I wasn’t ready for David to grill me so early,” she remarked to her father. “He asked me lots of questions. Do you think you’re too young? Are you ready for this? Do you need an introduction with this person?”

“He’s just had a lot of coffee,” her father said.

The father and daughter kept chatting. Ms. Lum’s mother, Lorraine, busied herself around the store. A cousin prepared food in the back kitchen, where a trapdoor leads to the oven room once used for roasting whole pigs. As the ice cream shop’s line grew outside, and tourists walked along Mott, Wing on Wo continued to bear witness to it all.

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Keeping It Local

The Cheungs were originally attracted to Windsor Terrace because of what Mr. Cheung described as “a mix of old-school Brooklyn and new families.”


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In 1999, he and Mrs. Cheung, the assistant administrator at the law firm Ostrolenk Faber, purchased a two-bedroom duplex condo facing Prospect Park for under $300,000. Mr. Cheung said that neighbors have recently sold similar properties for around $900,000.

Back in January 2015, Mr. and Mrs. Cheung were out on a neighborhood stroll when they saw a for-rent sign in the window of a storefront that had gone through many incarnations in recent years, including ice cream shop, oyster bar and tiny upscale cafe.

CHRIS CHEUNG, Owner, East Wind Snack Shop, Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn Credit Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

“When I saw the space, it reminded me of the restaurants I used to go to as a kid in Chinatown,” Mr. Cheung said. “They’re like Chinese teahouses with the focus on snacks — dumplings and bao. I thought, here’s this spot near my house — we’d be opening up a neighborhood restaurant.” Within two weeks, Mr. Cheung, whose lengthy culinary résumé includes stints at Jean-Georges, Nobu, the Monkey Bar and Almond Flower Bistro, had signed a five-year lease on the place.

An obvious benefit of staying local is that although he puts in 10- to 12-hour days, five to six days a week, his commute is practically nonexistent. And it’s unlikely that his policy of shuttering the restaurant on Sundays to spend time with his wife and son would fly in a neighborhood that wasn’t already so focused on family.

Mr. Cheung said he had matured since his days at the helm of big-time restaurant kitchens. In Windsor Terrace, he said, sounding contented, “I’m known as the ‘dumpling guy.’ I’m known for making good food.”

For some business owners, opening up shop in a neighborhood is the impetus to further commit to the area by purchasing a home and becoming a full-time local.

‘When I saw the space, it reminded me of the restaurants I used to go to as a kid in Chinatown.’ — Chris Cheung Credit Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

Up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, James Lee, 48, a contestant in 2011 on Season 7 of the Food Network’s “Chopped,” resides just steps from his eclectic neighborhood cafe, 181 Cabrini, at 854 West 181st Street, and about a dozen blocks from Buddha Beer Bar, a sports-oriented establishment at 4476 Broadway, which he also owns.

“I’m a neighborhood kind of guy,” said Mr. Lee, who was born in Busan, South Korea, and grew up in Toronto. “I used to have a restaurant in Midtown. I didn’t like it. Everybody wants things right away. We catered to law firms. They’re just miserable, so I didn’t know why I was bothering.”


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Mr. Lee opened 181 Cabrini in 2008, and then in 2010, along with his wife, Verena Cimarolli, 47, a senior research scientist for the Research Institute on Aging of the New Jewish Home, moved to their two-bedroom co-op from Harlem. Mr. Lee declined to reveal the purchase price, but according to Jonathan J. Miller, the president of Miller Samuel, a real estate appraisal firm, similar properties in the area have sold for a median price of $581,392 over the last six months.

In 2012, Mr. Lee opened Buddha Beer Bar, a spot where locals convene for fantasy football, trivia night and craft beer. Next month, Mr. Lee and his sister will close on an investment property, a townhouse in nearby Hamilton Heights. John Keenan, a salesman with Douglas Elliman Real Estate, helped them with their search.

Tips for Neighborhood Business Owners

Hire the Right Help “Hire someone to oversee the construction,” advised Terri Gloyd, an owner with Annie Tsantes of LIC Corner Cafe in Long Island City, Queens. “We had an offer from a guy to do the whole renovation for $70,000, and I thought, ‘That is so much money!’ It probably would have been smart to do it.” Look to the Locals “There’s this Russian guy that lives up the street and he introduced us to this Polish woodworker who put the wood in around our windows and front door,” Ms. Gloyd said. “Annie’s son Rowan put our electricity in, and her other son, Damien, put our air-conditioners in. My son helped to move equipment.” Prepare for Obstacles “This city makes it hard to do small businesses,” said Chris Cheung, the owner of East Wind Snack Shop in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. “I’ll be flat out — the city almost makes you feel like they don’t want you to open a business. From permits to fees to signing onto your cable and internet, it’s a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle.” Don’t Push Product When it comes to her clothing, Lia Kes, a fashion designer and shop owner on the Upper West Side, strives to create a relationship with regular customers. “I say: ‘If you don’t need it and it won’t leave your closet enough times, leave it here. We’ll sell it to someone else.’” Bring Your ‘A’ Game“You need that Type A personality in order to do this,” said James Lee, who owns a cafe and a sports bar in Washington Heights. “You have to be able to multitask. It’s not about the food, it’s about ‘How many balls can I put in the air without dropping them?’”

“I definitely see the purchase as a way of James investing further into his community, as he’s been doing in Washington Heights and Harlem for the past 10 years,” Mr. Keenan said.

Mr. Lee feels that by keeping his ventures near home, he’s “carved out a living without all the hassles,” he said, which includes being able to pick up his son, Noah Lee, 8, at the bus stop every day after school.

“I design my schedule so that I have pockets of free time. I coach his soccer team, I’m coaching his hockey team. Even though my wife and I both work full time, he’s never had a babysitter.”

Mr. Lee calls Washington Heights one of the “last real neighborhoods in New York City,” where different cultures coexist and everyone’s “just trying to make it.”

LIA KES, Owner, KES NYC, Upper West Side, Manhattan
Credit Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

“The only thing that matters in a neighborhood are the restaurants, bars and cafes,” he said. “It used to be about being near shops. Nobody cares about shops, even grocery shops — everyone gets Fresh Direct. No one cares to be close to the Gap. How many times do you need to go get a T-shirt? The social fabric is here, in the restaurants.”

And, he said, owning a restaurant near home means a better quality of life, not just for him, but also for his employees. “I like to hire guys from the neighborhood,” he said. “I think one of the most stressful parts of your job is the commute. So if you eliminate that, it’s a little bit simpler.” Hiring locals also has a practical side: “They can’t give me no lie that the train was stuck!”

For some, living in such proximity to the shop would mean blurred lines between home and work. But for Mr. Lee, those lines don’t exist. “You can’t really separate the business from your life when you’re this close,” he said. “I step out my door and I’m at work.”


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Sometimes, living in a neighborhood gives you perspective on what your community is lacking.

When Terri Gloyd, 62, made trips to the dog run with her spaniel in Long Island City, Queens, she would often stare at an abandoned Filipino grocery near her building, and envision the possibilities. The area had restaurants and a nice market, she said, but there seemed to be room for a cafe.

‘I think there is something very beautiful and human in opening a business in a place that you feel a connection to.’ —Lia Kes Credit Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

In November 2015, she and her business partner, Annie Tsantes, 65, opened LIC Corner Cafe at 21-03 45th Road. Ms. Gloyd has resided around the corner from the spot since 1987, while Ms. Tsantes has lived in the very building that houses the cafe since 1980 — she’s its superintendent.

“Neither of us have owned a business before,” said Ms. Gloyd, who arrives at the cafe at 6:30 a.m. each day to start making baked goods such as blueberry pie, while Ms. Tsantes comes in for the later shift and focuses her attention on preparing savory dishes. The partners, who were acquaintances, have fallen into what they call a “sisterly” relationship, divvying up the work without really talking about it.

“We now know the old neighborhood and the younger crowd who are buying these new condos,” Ms. Gloyd said. “This isn’t just about money for us. It’s about community.”

Ms. Tsantes’s brother owns the building that houses the cafe, and did not charge rent during the time it took to complete the gut renovation. “That’s what allowed us to do this,” Ms. Gloyd explained. The rent on the cafe started at $1,500 a month and has now increased to $1,800 a month.

JAMES LEE, Owner, Buddha Beer Bar and 181 Cabrini, Washington Heights, Manhattan Credit Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

Ms. Gloyd and her husband, Pat Irwin, 61, a composer, secured a piece of the neighborhood before it was popular, purchasing their two-bedroom apartment for $60,000 in 1994.

“Long Island City was like a secret, easy-to-get-to, quiet neighborhood with lots of old factories,” Ms. Gloyd said. “It was a great place for a kid to grow up. We have a lot of friends that live in the neighborhood. It feels like a small town, and we love that about it.”

The cafe is the definition of mom-and-pop — Sam Irwin, 22, the son of Ms. Gloyd and Mr. Irwin, and a recent graduate of Bennington College, fills in at the cafe. Other employees include Natalie DeSabato, 26, a resident of nearby Ridgewood who secured herself a spot on the payroll by enticing the women with the homemade dough that they now use for their chocolate chip cookies. Julie Powell, the author of “Julie Julia,” who met Ms. Gloyd at the dog run, works there part time as a barista.


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The women were initially wary when a popular coffee chain opened a block away, but they have since realized it’s not direct competition.

‘The only thing that matters in a neighborhood are the restaurants, bars and cafes.’ —James Lee Credit Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

“We carry Toby’s,” Ms. Gloyd explained, referring to Toby’s Estate Coffee, the Brooklyn-based small-batch coffee roasters. “We have water filters, everything’s weighed, we’ve taken classes.”

Besides offering what they believe is a better brew, they have Ms. Gloyd’s homemade focaccia. And every month the cafe features the work of a different local artist on its walls.

Lia Kes, 44, a fashion designer, opened her boutique, KES NYC, in March 2014, not downtown, but on the Upper West Side, her home of 15 years, not counting a brief sojourn in San Francisco. The shop, at 463 Amsterdam Avenue, features her seasonless, utilitarian-yet-feminine clothing.

“There was nothing expected about it, and yet it’s needed,” said Ms. Kes of her business, striking a glamorous figure in her Elongated Kimono Dress in black silk and a wild mane of hair. “I feel that this is my role in the community,” Ms. Kes said.

Reared on a kibbutz in Israel, she says she is drawn to her neighbors. “On the Upper West Side there is something very special that I feel and recognize in the casualness of people, the ‘no big deal’ of who they are,” she said. “And I’m very appreciative of that.”

She described her shop as a living room for her neighborhood’s “super successful, beautiful women.”

“Women are coming in, and they might have coffee with us,” Ms. Kes said. “Some will pass by and say hi and it’s a conversation that may lead to buying something — or not.”

Ms. Kes, who has two daughters, Sunnye Lyri Berman, 11, and Orrie Love Berman, 9, rents a two-bedroom apartment for $7,000 a month just steps from her store. She is working with Anat Patishi, a saleswoman with DJK Residential, to find a home in the $2 million range, and has limited her search to a radius of a few blocks.


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“I think there is something very beautiful and human in opening a business in a place that you feel a connection to,” Ms. Kes said. “If you feel like part of the community and you see an opening and there is a void you can fill, there’s something very organic and beautiful about that.”

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The Neighborhood Bookstore’s Unlikely Ally? The Internet

But after years of losses, they are emerging from the decimation, with the number of independent bookstores rising 21 percent from 2010 to 2015.


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In a twist of fate, it is the internet — the very thing that was supposed to wipe them out — that is helping these small stores.

Retail sales of new books, which include chains but not online retailers such as Amazon, increased last year for the first time since 2007, according to Census Bureau data — and are up another 6 percent this year. By contrast, Barnes Noble’s sales fell 6.6 percent last quarter.

“Bookstores are being reinvented by taking advantage of how the world has changed,” said Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, which represents independent sellers. “The whole ability to put technology to work for you has changed everything.”

Some bookstores are investing in infrastructure, such as in-shop e-book printers and new back-end systems, while others are embracing social media as an inexpensive way to connect with new customers.

Undoubtedly, the bookselling industry is still digging out of a deep trough. Sales of physical books in physical stores were just $11 billion in 2015, compared with $17 billion in 2007.

Wild Fig is connecting with residents of the changing neighborhood. Credit William DeShazer for The New York Times

But owners like Mr. Makin are finding ways to gain customer loyalty with the aid of technology. He knew he could not compete with Amazon on price, but he believed that online buyers would flock to Brilliant Books if they experienced the same customer service that shoppers in his physical store do.

“I say, ‘We are your long-distance local bookstore,’” Mr. Makin said.

He began offering free shipping anywhere in the United States and hired a full-time social media manager, who promotes the store and has used Twitter and Facebook to talk to readers who would never find themselves near Traverse City.

One of his most successful ways of getting repeat business is his store’s version of a book-of-the-month program, which makes personalized recommendations for each of its nearly 2,000 subscribers every 30 days. Rather than use an online form to track preferences, Brilliant sends each new subscriber a customer card to fill out by hand and mail back.


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Employees then scan the card into the system so that when it is book-selection time, they can see what the customers said they liked and how they said it.

“How we might write something might show an entirely different taste in books,” Mr. Malkin said. “People scribble things out. They draw arrows. We get a feel for who they are.”

Individually selecting titles for nearly 2,000 people can be time-consuming. “An awfully long time,” Mr. Makin said, laughing. “But the technology allows us to make this happen.”

Once the selections are made, the back-end system orders books from the publishers and prints postage and address labels. After the books arrive, the staff mails personalized packages.

The investment is paying off: Sales are up 14 percent this year, and Mr. Makin anticipates that 30 percent of Brilliant’s sales will come from online orders — doubling last year’s total. Facebook customers buy more nonfiction titles, while Twitter conversations generate more sales of young adult and children’s books.

“We’re in the 21st century and we’re a 21st century book store,” said Aimee Jodoin, Brilliant’s social media manager. “Shop small is the way to beat Amazon. People are going to shop online, so we have an online presence.”

These social media experiments are shifts in culture for many small businesses.

“The one thing small business has over big boxes is that they can get to know every customer, but they have been hesitant to engage online,” said Peter Shankman, a social media strategist and the author of “Zombie Loyalists: Using Great Service to Create Rabid Fans.” “They heard about needing followers but didn’t see any returns. When they realized that by making it personal, they could get return shoppers, it changed.”

The online model is attracting customers even to unlikely places, like The Last Bookstore, which opened in 2009 in what was then a skid row location in downtown Los Angeles. Now the area is gentrifying, and more people are finding the store and posting photos of its unusual interior. The 22,000-square-foot shop is inside a former bank building and has quirky décor. Its science fiction collection, for example, is in an old vault.

Wild Fig hosts salons to discuss race, gender and gentrification — all issues relevant to its patrons. Credit William DeShazer for The New York Times

The Last Bookstore now has 24,000 followers on Instagram. Staff picks posted there frequently become the store’s best sellers.


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“We’re part of a downtown that is booming and gentrifying, so we’ve had a lot of attention to our geography,” said the store manager, Katie Orphan. “We didn’t expect that it would lead to the Instagram attention that we have had.”

Some stores’ experiments haven’t always yielded success. Bookcourt, a stalwart in south Brooklyn, tried streaming its events and offering a podcast of its author interviews. Both have been discontinued because the staff time required to produce them did not justify the demand.

Instead, the store communicates with its customers via social media and an email newsletter, where the most-read stories are about events and staff picks.

“That’s been the best tool for reaching customers and finding new sales,” said Andrew Unger, Bookcourt’s events and publicity manager.

Still, he hopes to find a way in the future to promote the store’s deep trove of audio interviews of popular talks by notable people like Garrison Keillor and Oliver Stone.

“Small business, when it comes to something like this, it’s hard to find someone with enough time to really dedicate themselves to it, but we hope to,” Mr. Unger said.

Booksellers have also found themselves accidentally creating successful online characters. The customers of the Wild Fig Books and Coffee in Lexington, Ky., avidly follow the store on Instagram, looking for the antics of the store’s Barista Barbie. Ron Davis, an owner of the store and a visual artist, created the character as a lark, posting photos featuring the Barbie doll reading books, enjoying coffee and offering sassy commentary.

“One of our grandchildren took her out of the store so there was a whole thing about ‘Where is Barista Barbie? Has she been kidnapped?’” said Crystal Wilkinson, who owns the store with Mr. Davis.


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When the couple opened Wild Fig a year ago in a three-bedroom home in the North Limestone neighborhood of Lexington, they expected the store to draw the community’s largely African-American residents. But through Facebook, they also connected with new residents of the changing area. Ms. Wilkinson said hipsters and new mothers now come in searching for comic books and children’s books.

Although social media helps spread the word, Ms. Wilkinson’s focus is on staying a local shop for local customers. She even hosts Sunday salons to discuss race, gender and gentrification — all issues relevant to her patrons.

“We love what we’re doing,” said Ms. Wilkinson, a writer herself. “We keep our finger on the pulse of the community, which doesn’t bring any dollars, but it helps the community and that’s what matters.”

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This Store Still Needs a Name

“I want something that feels and tastes right, or I’m not going to be happy,” Benjamin Albucker said of his naming his vintage design store. Credit Ramsay de Give for The New York Times

Benjamin Albucker is, by his own description, an exacting, opinionated, slightly neurotic aesthete. He has a refined eye and a drive to sharpen it further.

His canvas is his vintage design store in Lambertville, N.J. The carefully curated space stands out from the many antiques shops and galleries in the town along the Delaware River. For starters, it has been open for more than a year without a name.

“Naming a business is a creative endeavor,” said Mr. Albucker, pronounced All-beu-KER. “I want something that feels and tastes right, or I’m not going to be happy.”

Mr. Albucker, 29, offers only pieces he really loves. That includes the aluminum furniture of early modernist and industrialist Warren McArthur; home or garage-made folk-art furniture; the rare early work produced by Herman Miller and Knoll, and just about any object made of perforated metal.

Mr. Albucker at his shop in Lambertville, N.J. Credit Ramsay de Give for The New York Times

“I have a weird addiction to perforated metal,” he said, whether it’s from Mathieu Matégot or a mechanic’s workbench.

Like all good store owners, Mr. Albucker is a gifted set designer, placing, say, the honeycombed part from an industrial air-conditioner below an unusual oil portrait to create something striking and greater than the sum of its parts.

The skill runs in the family; his father, Stewart Ross, ran an art gallery in SoHo in the early-’90s that sold evocative paintings by little-known 20th-century American artists.


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Mr. Albucker said he realized at 15 that he didn’t like new things. After studying textiles and international business at the Fashion Institute of Technology and living in New York, he returned to the Lambertville-New Hope area. “I want to do this for a lifetime,” he said. “I care a lot about it.”

As for a business name, he recently downloaded and read through a list of every municipality in the country hoping to hit upon the right sound and connotation.

For now, he is operating under his own name.

36 North Union Street, Lambertville, N.J.; 609-397-8730;

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Maine’s ‘Clean’ Medical Marijuana: ‘Organic’ in Disguise

Some medical marijuana users may not care if the product they buy is certified as clean; their primary concern is whether it meets their needs. But growers like Ms. Haywood see the distinction as an opportunity in an intensely competitive market.

D.J. Taylor, a master cannabis gardener, trims harvested marijuana buds. Credit Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

Maine’s caregiver program is growing quickly, up nearly 150 percent to 2,921 growers in 2015, from 1,197 in 2013. It is also competing with a parallel network of eight marijuana dispensaries in the state. If Maine voters approve a citizens’ initiative in November, marijuana will be legalized, and competition will probably increase exponentially.

Prices are flat already. Ms. Haywood typically sells her marijuana for $10 a gram (0.035 ounce), but other growers are charging less and offering discounts for buying by the ounce. Margins are tight, but the business provides growers with a steady, if small, income, Ms. Haywood said, adding that she earns less than $30,000 a year after costs.

“I feel like anybody who uses anything that is not organic, whether it’s food or smoke, or whatever, they are making a mistake,” said Dawson Julia, 45, another grower. “I feel like it’s a bad health choice.” (The fit-looking Mr. Julia offered this health tip: “I work 14 hours a day, and I smoke a lot of cannabis, so that’s my secret. No gyms allowed.”)

Getting the certification, however, was an arduous process in Maine.

Mr. Julia, who owns East Coast CBDs, which is housed in a warehouse in the small town of Unity, Me., is a longtime marijuana user. He said the state’s medical marijuana program, approved by citizens’ initiative in 2009, allowed him to turn his passion into a livelihood. “When it passed on the ballot, it was like a dream come true,” he said.

Mr. Julia sowed the seeds for the clean certification program in 2013. He was one of the first growers to approach the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association about it. The industry association has 11,000 members and a staff of 30, and it has been certifying Maine farms as organic since 1972.

“I called thinking I was just going to sign up for the program, you know, ‘I want to grow organic marijuana, where do I get the paperwork?’”


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That is when he learned that the word “organic” is defined by the Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, which sets the standards for certification. Marijuana, still illegal under federal law, is not a crop the program recognizes (tobacco, however, is).

Harvested and dried marijuana buds await trimming. Credit Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

Mr. Julia was undeterred. If the Maine association had no program for marijuana, he thought it could start one. If growers could not use the organic label, they would use another.

He found an ally in the board member John Krueger, a gardener who grows much of his own food and once ran the Maine Health and Environment Testing Laboratory. Mr. Krueger said he saw parallels between this new generation of marijuana growers and his peers in Maine’s 1970s back-to-the-land movement. They convened a committee, which included Ms. Haywood.

After dozens of meetings over two and half years, the certification plan was started in August as a one-year trial. The plan follows the United States Department of Agriculture standards. Plants must be grown in soil (hydroponics do not qualify) and fertilized with natural nutrients, and pesticides are tightly restricted.

But Mr. Julia does not expect to increase his prices as a result. “Just because I got a certificate that says this is official, clean cannabis, I’m absolutely not going to charge any more,” he said. “If anything, it’s an incentive to help inspire other people to follow our lead.”

Maine is following the lead of Western states, where the industry is more mature. Clean Green Certified has been certifying marijuana in five Western states since 2004, including 20,000 pounds in 2015. And Colorado’s Organic Cannabis Association has developed a pesticide-free certificate.

Amy Andrle, of L’Eagle Services, which grows and sells marijuana in Denver, serves on the association’s board. She said as pot consumers are becoming more sophisticated, “there’s nothing like the value of a third-party certifier” to give growers a marketing edge.

Certification is just one tricky aspect of an industry that Ms. Haywood said was fraught with complexity.

Dawson Julia, right, and Bernard Dozier chat at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Me.

Credit Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

For one thing, she cannot open a business bank account. Banks are closely scrutinized over illegal drug-trafficking, which has posed a vexing problem for legal businesses. Visa and MasterCard will not process transactions for marijuana dispensaries, and most banks will not open accounts for the businesses.


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Proposed state regulations pose another hurdle. Ms. Haywood has visited the State House in Augusta dozens of times in the last few years and submitted many pages of testimony to fight increased regulation, which she calls “legislative overreach.”

Mr. Julia and his wife are both classified as caregivers, so their operation can be twice as large as Ms. Haywood’s. Each caregiver can serve as many as five patients and grow up to six flowering plants for each.

Mr. Julia’s warehouse holds 60 flowering plants. Many others are immature, spread out in a rabbit warren of rooms painted white, with bright lights and ventilation ducts hanging from the ceiling. But there is little opportunity to grow further largely because of staffing issues and state limitations. “My business is maxed out,” he said. “We turn away new patients now, because we can’t grow enough to keep up with everybody.”

One restriction is a state regulation that allows each caregiver to hire just one employee, so Mr. Julia and his wife may hire only two others.

“It’s frustrating,” Mr. Julia said. “Because I’ve got employees that are working 60 to 65 hours a week, and I’ve got to pay overtime, and they are getting burnt out. Meanwhile, we’ve got customers that are expecting products and service.”

Security is another challenge. Even though his operation is in the heart of a small town, he has been robbed twice. But he said he also feels the squeeze from law enforcement. When state regulators came to inspect his business recently, Mr. Julia said, they brought a small convoy from the county sheriff’s office, though he was not cited for any infraction.

Ms. Haywood says she often feels in limbo. “I feel the heavy hand of government, and kind of an eye in the sky always watching me,” she said. “And I feel, frankly, like I’m a criminal, yet a business owner at the same time. It’s a dichotomy that I deal with every day.”

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