Walk down almost any New York City street these days and you’ll see a string of empty storefronts. The rising costs on commercial rentals have made it practically prohibitive to open a new business, let alone maintain one, or flourish. But New Yorkers are nothing if not innovative, and a new wave of co-working has swooped in to both change, and save, the day.
The Main Stage at The Workshop Theater, located in Hell’s Kitchen at 312 West 36th Street, was packed. People abuzz, the company expectantly gathered for a meeting on the heels of its Silver Anniversary. But the news was almost bleak. It seemed that under the jurisdiction of the showcase code at Actors’ Equity, the Workshop was no longer able to produce shows at its current budget. However, the theater’s increased budget was in place only to make the rent. Not to withhold contract scale payment from working artists. Still, Equity held firm, and production was stopped.
It sadly, and quickly became clear. With the showcases dissolved, there was no way the company could financially keep the space with two theaters that had provided a creative home the last 25 years. But plays that began at The Workshop had been named Critics’ Picks by the New York Times, received two Drama Desk nominations, won four New York Innovative Theater Awards, and another turned into the film, Finding Neverland, earning two Workshop members Oscar nods. So how could they afford to lose it?
Artistic Director, Thomas Coté and Managing Director, Dana Leslie Goldstein, alongside a committed Board of Directors, pulled out all the stops to solve the problem. Dana’s tireless search finally led her to IndieSpace, an organization that aims to create permanent real estate solutions for the independent theater community by delivering affordable creative space. They matched the Workshop up with another theater company that will take over the Main Stage lease at the beginning of the 2018-2019 season. The Workshop Theater will maintain control of the smaller Jewel Box Theater, while they mutually share the lobby and office.
“The mission in development is to keep the community we all love, focus more on the art and the passion, and less on paying rent,” said Ben Sumrall, Board of Directors Chair and Company Artist. “That’s surely something in everybody’s interest,” said Ben, whose humor and pathos can be seen in the promo video created for The Workshop Theater’s 25th Anniversary Indiegogo Campaign. The goal is to raise money to develop New American Plays and Musicals. And thanks to this partnership, that is something The Workshop Theater can continue to do.
Passion tends to lead the way, as well, in the case of hairdresser, Robert Stuart, who loves cutting hair, and instinctively knows when its time to reinvent himself. The first time was in 1983 when, after a few years of cutting in the exclusive Bendel’s and Vidal Sassoon, Robert went out on his own. As a resident of the Upper West Side, he felt the neighborhood was in need of a real hair salon, and not just the unisex hair parlors that were prevalent in the day. Robert opened on Amsterdam and 82nd Street with his co-owner and business partner, Valerie Stuart, to whom he’s been married forty years.
The business was wildly successful, attracting people in the hood, theater folk, authors and heads of corporations. New Yorker magazine wrote “Shortcuts,” featuring the salon in the column, Popular Chronicles. After eight years, he moved to 84th Street for the next twenty, and then over to Columbus Avenue for seven. But the increased financial and management burdens ultimately brought almost thirty-five years on the Upper West Side to an abrupt end. It was time for Robert to reinvent himself, again.
After reading different salon publications, Valerie had learned that the trend in Middle America was booth rentals. A google search of “chair and booth rentals” led the Stuarts to Salons by JC, a company that transformed the beauty industry with salon suite rentals. Opening their doors in 1998 Dallas, Salons by JC has grown to 53 locations in over 20 states and Canada. The current franchise, located at 124 West 24th Street in Chelsea, became the new home to Robert Stuart Salon.
“I feel much more relaxed and very happy to be able to cut hair, instead of paying bills,” Robert said, of the salon he shares with Valerie and a hair colorist. “I’m a people person, and the new business model lends itself to intimacy. Work is just a joy, plus I have the time to focus on my craft.” Most recently, Robert completed a seminar with Eiji Yamane, a Japanese haircutter, to learn the technique of the “dry cut,” sculpting hair into shapes to frame and enhance the face. As well, Robert’s pen, ink and acrylic drawings, framed, hang in the new salon.
“When you have your own business you are isolated, and other salons are competitors, but here we are a community,” explained Valerie. “If we run out of a tube of color, someone across the hall will lend us one. People pass and refer clients. We thrive as a collective, and everyone is friendly and supportive.”
Community is the cream that rises to the top, and so it is, too, at The Milling Room. The Upper West Side restaurant, located at 446 Columbus Avenue at 81st Street, features seasonal locally sourced American cuisine prepared by Executive Chef Phillip Kirschen-Clark. The exceptional space includes a huge skylit dining room, and beautiful tavern-inspired bar that opens 5 PM daily for Happy Hour. But during the day, the restaurant is dark. Enter Spacious.com.
Spacious is a networking website of co-working spaces. Spacious compiles lists of venues that are closed during the day, like restaurants, but whose space can become a freelancer’s office. Then they create partnerships to operate along with the venue. They have partnered with fantastic restaurateurs like Joe Bastianich and Daniel Boulud.
“Spacious allows people with flexibility to make a city their office,” said Peter Williamson, the Spacious host at The Milling Room where they provide complimentary coffee and tea, power outlets and wifi all for a monthly fee of $129. “Now people, who would otherwise be working from home alone, have the opportunity to meet people in areas all over where they can also be in a productive environment,” said Peter, noting the membership includes access to all of the Spacious locations: 12 in Manhattan, 2 in Brooklyn and 1 in Jersey City. Over the course of a day there can be as many as 100+ check-ins.
“It was a good match for us because we had not been open for lunch or brunch, so it was a nice opportunity to be able to use the space,” said Samantha Moretti, The Milling Room’s general manager who acknowledged financial incentive, but felt the main goal was to utilize the space during the day, and connect with the neighborhood. “As people are more and more into their devices, the culture of communities tends to be in constant dilution. But creating a co-working partnership helps to build community and enforce relationships. We know that people choose to spend their days working with us.”
Everyone agrees that when a business reaches the community it allows small businesses to thrive. Sadly, too many have met their demise. Some think the empty storefront a transitional situation that will right itself over time. Or it may just transcend into a whole new co-work model. People need people, and businesses need partners.
2020 ADENDUM: Spacious is no longer in operation. However, DropDesk offers the same solution to struggling restaurant owners.
Photos: Courtesy of Thomas Coté, Laurie Graff, Valerie Rosenthal and Samantha Moretti.