Swiss Family Robinson sets sail for Montague Street
Eye On Real Estate: Furniture store opening in January
It started with a coffee table, a console and two desks, half a world away.
That’s the first line of furniture a merchant who’s making his Montague Street debut designed back in 1996 when he and his wife launched their showroom Atmosphere – in Geneva.
Paul Yanacopoulos-Gross and his wife and business partner Sophie have left Switzerland – and are opening a shop on the parlor floor of 148 Montague St., where St. Mark’s Comics shut down in November 2012, the Brooklyn Eagle has learned.
They’ve come to Brooklyn Heights on an E-2 investor visa and expect to put $700,000 into Homestories, the furniture and accessories store they hope will be ready for business in January.
“We really do believe in this thing called the American dream,” said Paul, 49 – a British-born designer who was trained as a sculptor at Camberwell College of Art and studied at the London College of Furniture.
Interior construction started in September in the space, which is 11 steps above the sidewalk.
The couple landed the 1,800-square-foot site after Paul saw a listing for it on Brownstoner.com last Christmas Eve. He and Sophie had made a plan months before to relocate to Brooklyn, but were still living in Switzerland.
The listing photo looked good to Sophie – it showed a distinctive arch-topped window that reminded her of their first shop in Geneva. The long expanse of interior space in the picture reminded Paul of the combination showroom and home they later built in Jussy, a village outside Geneva.
They’d spent time on Montague Street during a trip to Brooklyn. Paul had thought the Heights’ retail corridor could be a suitable place for their store.
“We worked fast and leased it right away,” Paul said of the vacant site.
That was in February. They wanted to open Homestories by Thanksgiving, in time for the holiday selling season. But it took six months to get the city Landmarks Preservation Commission’s okay to build – because their downstairs neighbors had outstanding LPC violations that had be cleared up.
The Happy Days Diner’s window was painted the wrong color; the news stand had an ATM sign that wasn’t up to snuff.
The 19th Century brownstone where they’re building the store belongs to the Harkavy family, who bought the building for $925,000 through a partnership called Montague Associates in a 1993 bankruptcy court sale.
Homestories will sell Paul’s furniture designs, which are made in a factory in Cantu, Italy, as well as an array of home furnishings items by other designers.
‘WHITE SHIRT YOU CAN FIT WITH ANYTHING’
The Eagle got a sneak peak at the clean-lined oak furniture – and the types of accessories the store will stock – during a recent visit to the couple’s Clinton Street apartment a few blocks from the store site.
Future shoppers can get a glimpse on www.homestories.com – the website they’re just launching.
Sophie, 49, an interior designer who studied at the Geneva School of Decorative Arts, calls Paul’s designs “contemporary and functional but warm.”
Some of her clients put antiques on the consoles, others put ethnic art – it’s versatile furniture and looks right either way, she said.
“It’s sober enough not to impose a culture,” she said. “It’s a white shirt you can fit with anything.”
Chairs will be priced from $250 to $700, dining tables from $2,500 to $6,000, consoles at $2,400 and sofas from $2,000 to $8,000.
Smaller-ticket items that will sell more quickly will include baskets priced $30 to $600, vases $30 to $200, cushions $150 and up, and bed linens, crockery, wooden platters and tote bags. The store will also carry Brooklyn artists’ and artisans’ wares – starting with a line of charming stuffed animals and dolls designed by Tamar Mogendorff.
Their furniture will continue to be made in Italy. In the future they might have it manufactured in the United States, but haven’t decided where. At some point Sophie will probably offer “home styling” services like she did in Switzerland, redecorating clients’ homes almost entirely with furnishings they already own.
They are using the name Homestories for their shop instead of Atmosphere because “we have a story to tell,” Paul said – and there’s already a home furnishings shop called Atmosphere in Carroll Gardens.
The rules for the E-2 visa that gave the Yanacopoulos-Grosses their entree to America require them to make a “substantial” investment in the U.S. business where they will be working, but don’t set a dollar minimum.
The investment must put “capital, including funds and/or other assets, at risk in the commercial sense with the objective of generating a profit,” the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website notes.
The couple was able to make their move to Brooklyn because they sold their showroom/house in Jussy for big bucks – despite long-running economic woes in Europe. The Swiss are cautious spenders who buy less during recessions or don’t buy at all, said Sophie, whose father was Greek and whose mother was Swedish.
They decided it was time to go after an exhibition they staged at their workplace/home drew favorable write-ups in several magazines – but their sales still remained slow. Paul wanted to live in an English-speaking location for a change.
“Australia is too far, Canada is too cold, the West Coast has no seasons,” he said. Brooklyn – one of the “artistic capitals of the world” as far as he’s concerned – was alluring.
The couple enrolled 10-year-old daughter Athena in fifth grade at Public School 58 in Carroll Gardens. They’re looking at private schools for son Theodore, 14, who is in eighth grade at a public school.
Paul finds he feels right at home in Brooklyn Heights.
“The architecture is on a human scale. You see the sky,” he said. “There’s a wonderful community spirit. I really do love being here. It reminds me of London. I don’t feel displaced.”
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