Merchant Spotlight: Gumbo Creative Space

Karen Zebulon stands by some of her wares in her new space.

For the second installment in a series of articles about businesses who have adjusted their business models to accommodate changing market trends, Jonathan Marable sat down with Karen Zebulon, the owner of Gumbo Creative Space (495 Atlantic Avenue).

[Jonathan]: Karen, thank you for taking time to talk with me. Could you briefly describe your business, Gumbo?

[Karen]: It’s kind of a unique place. Gumbo is a retail store featuring a very international selection of goods and merchandise and several handcrafted items, things you probably won’t find in a department store. Along with the store I do classes and events. I have classes for babies and children from 4 weeks old to 5 years, such as baby development, infant-child CPR, music classes in Spanish, and musical theatre.

Current art exhibit “Family” by Ibou Ndoye of Senegal on display.
Photo courtesy of Karen Zebulon.

[Jonathan]: What inspired you to start your business? And why start this type of business?

[Karen]: I helped to transform a small children’s store in my neighborhood as a partner, briefly. This retail experience gave me the experience and push needed for me to decide to open my own store. I already had all the tools I needed to be able to run my own business—from a past position at the New School in publications and communications, I had the experience marketing classes and balancing budgets, I had an eye for design, and I had a love for merchandising. I also knew what it took to find and form relationships with the best people. Thus, I decided to go for it. And I adjusted along the way based on what customers said they wanted to see.

I have now been here on Atlantic Avenue for 17 years, but it was never an easy journey. Opening my business after 9/11 was tough. At the time there were not as many businesses or people here as there are now. However, a decent economy helped my business grow. People were excited when I first moved in, and liked my store because it was unique. I had lots of customers then. As a business with merchandise, classes and events for babies and young kids, I pioneered the business model that many other businesses in many neighborhoods now employ. My business did not start out that way; it was an evolutionary process to now. I also had to make some sacrifices to keep my business alive, especially during the Great Recession.

Many businesses have come and gone, but mine has remained mainly due to the close relationships I have maintained with my customers, vendors, and teachers.

Babies watchfully engage in a Sing-a-Long with Frank Gallo.
Photo courtesy of Karen Zebulon.

[Jonathan]: Indeed, many have said that the corridor has changed a lot. In what ways have you seen it change?

[Karen]: The block [between Third and Fourth Avenues] is a bit of a ghost town now. Not that there aren’t any businesses here, but there are certainly some dead spots here that used to house [storefront] businesses that defined the area. For example, Kea Carpets and Kilims was one of the reasons I moved here in the first place. I liked their aesthetic, and I thought it pointed in the direction that the rest of the block was going. But they’re gone now. So is Dig Garden Store, Go Green, and Home and Abroad. I feel the spirit of the block is gone. It’s so sad.

But there are some good things happening as well. A pediatric dentist is moving in next door, which will inevitably attract customers. Someone is taking over the restaurant next door.

I feel a big part of this absence of spirit is a lack of the feeling of connection between businesses that used to be here. I used to be an organizer and board member for another local organization. My block used to have meetings, and do things together such as compete in the Greenest Block Competition or get together for drinks or just to chat. Those things don’t happen now.

[Editor’s note: The Atlantic Avenue BID has started hosting monthly merchant mixers to facilitate connections and the sharing of ideas and resources among the community of entrepreneurs. We will be announcing the date of the next event shortly. Additionally, some of the businesses that Karen mentioned are still in business but no longer utilize a storefront space on the Avenue; they also adapted their business model to better serve their customers’ needs. For example, Go Green, Inc. now conducts cleaning services rather than selling physical products, and they rent an office space as a home base. Kea Carpets chose to focus on their Hudson Valley location, and their former Atlantic Avenue space will soon be occupied by a physical therapist.]

Parents and babies spend quality time at Baby In Tune with Vered.
Photo courtesy of Karen Zebulon.

[Jonathan]: We are definitely in the middle of a shake-up in the world of brick-and-mortar retail, and the sorts of businesses inhabit ground-level space. What are the shifts you’ve made in your business model in response to what you’ve seen change around you?

[Karen]: It’s important to note the changing nature of the customer base. For example, I have noticed more grandmothers bringing children rather than mothers. Also, fathers are starting to bring kids more frequently. Sometimes mothers and fathers will switch off taking care of their babies. I think changing laws allowing for maternity, paternity and family leave will lead to more of this.

The move to 495 Atlantic Avenue [from my long-time space next door] was a very good decision on my part. It enabled me to cut expenses tremendously, gain better financial security and maintain all my classes, while developing some new directions. For growth, I have shifted further away from retail and am working towards expanded programming for adults–including a music healing workshop once a month–as well as for slightly older children. This would not have been possible without all the professional instructors I have been able to work with. I’ve offered both merchandise and classes pretty much since I opened 17 years ago but am now shifting more towards classes and events and moving more of my retail sales online. Since relocating to my new location in the summer of 2018, I have also introduced art displays and plan to have on-going rotating exhibitions.

I also make sure to utilize relationships I have formed and maintained over the years. In fact, an old colleague from my New School days designed my current and former logos. Even the musician I was able to obtain for the opening here at 495 Atlantic was referred to me by one of the instructors from the classes I host.

One newer element that has been rather fruitful is the use of social media. I have hired Main Street Hub to manage my social media, and they were extremely accommodating for a small business’ budget. At the same time, small business owners must know they must be ready to be personable, and should not be afraid to talk to people. Customers want to feel welcomed into your business, and they appreciate personal touches such as gift wrapping. In general, customers are much more likely to return if they have a great experience. It is these relationships that have enabled me to last as long as I have.

[Jonathan]: Throughout this interview, you have underscored the importance of relationships—with instructors, vendors, clients, and colleagues—and how it has been crucial to your success. Thank you very much for taking time to tell us your story and offer advice that will help other business owners!

Babies play a large drum in Child’space NYC with Dan Rindler.
Photo courtesy of Karen Zebulon.

Follow this business on its website and stay tuned on social media for images of merchandise and updates on programming.

Gumbo Creative Space Shopping Hours:

Monday 3 – 6

Tuesday 3 – 6

Wednesday 12 – 7

Thursday 12 – 7*

Friday 3 – 7

Saturday 12 – 7

Sunday 12 – 6

*Note: Gumbo is open additional hours for classes and events.



Telephone: (718) 855-7808


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