The Risk Gallery & Boutique in Bushwick has been called “one of the most Instagrammable places in New York,” but just seeing it on a smartphone doesn’t do it justice. Once you set foot inside, it’s like entering a dreamland of color, playfulness and whimsy. From pink, princess-like dresses to unicorn headbands and watermelon-shaped handbags, the space is a trove of eclectic treasures.
In the dressing room, delighted customers have been known to scribble testimonials on the walls. “This store makes me feel like I could fight dragons and look glamorous while doing it,” read one note.
The boutique’s owner, Lindsay Risk, said her goal was to replicate Barbie’s closet. She considers the space to be “an adult playground” that strives to combine the experiences of visiting an art gallery, shopping for high-end vintage items, and attending a party. “It’s a happy place,” Risk told The Bridge. “It’s where people want to come and spend all day. I’d say 90% of the people that come in here say, ‘Can I live here?’”
This month, after a brief hiatus, Risk’s business re-opened in new, larger space at 205 Central Ave., about a mile southeast of her previous location. Because the boutique is on the ground floor of a new residential building, she was able to design the store from scratch, including a lower level that does multiple duty as a studio and event space. “I’m very happy. I love the new space,” she said.
Besides operating the retail store, Risk works as a personal stylist and provides garb for magazine fashion shoots and TV shows including The Deuce and The Americans. “I’d say 30% of my business is costume for HBO, for Showtime, and for some independent stuff,” she said.
Risk’s new space landed with a splash of notoriety even before it opened. Risk, with help from friends and family, painted the sidewalk outside the store in a black-and-white chessboard pattern, just as she had at her previous location. While some neighbors, especially kids, seemed to take delight, at least one neighbor called 311 to complain. The city’s Department of Transportation threatened a $250 fine and a local TV news crew showed up to chronicle the controversy. Risk is circulating a petition to defend it.
Risk opened her original Bushwick gallery-boutique in 2015 after working in the nightlife industry for a decade. The Michigan native, lifelong artist and graduate of Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) worked for the Gerber Group, the operator of swanky hotel bars like the Whiskey Blue.
After quitting her job and moving to Bushwick with her husband, she worked on her paintings in a rented studio and earned money selling clothes on consignment in neighborhood shops and painting their holiday window displays. It was a frigid day in February when she realized she should open her own store.
“I was freezing cold and walking down the street, and every one of these stores had all my clothes in the window and my art on the window,” she recalled. “I said to my husband, ‘We’re never going out to dinner ever again, we’re going to eat Chinese food every day, and I’m going to open my own store. I’m just going to do it.’” She had set aside some money from her corporate work as well.
Even so, she had found a calling well-matched to her last name. Retail businesses, especially the brick-and-mortar kind, have struggled in recent years, battered by rising rents and competition from online shopping. Many of the new retailers in Brooklyn have been national chain stores rather than indies, and Bushwick has been no exception.
But Risk says she has succeeded because her business is more than just a retail store. “It’s difficult to break even in retail,” she said. “It’s so hard, especially with Amazon taking over the world. However, this store is an experience, and it’s a destination experience. So that’s the only reason I think I’m surviving—and expanding.”
Before opening the boutique, however, Risk had no idea what it would be like. “I really had no idea how to run a retail store,” Risk said. “I knew how to open and run a bar.”
Studying the Business
To learn the ropes, Risk asked if she could work for a friend who owned a children’s store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I asked her, ‘Can I just, like, intern for two months to learn how to run a store?’” Risk said.
She learned that although the basic business principles were the same, there was actually a vast difference between her past and future industries, especially in terms of the clientele. “It’s just a totally different animal because in Brooklyn, one day I have hipsters, the next day I have men that want suits, and the next day I have moms with children,” Risk said. “It was very difficult, in the beginning, to shop for [the store].”
Eventually, she embraced an expansively eclectic process of gathering merchandise. Pieces in the store come from artists in New York, Italy, Bali, and beyond. She knows the stories of every item for sale, many of which were sourced from her own family, including clothes from her mother’s closet, hats from her grandmother, and a neon sign from a store her father used to own in Detroit.
“Growing up, I always loved Barbies. I was an only child and my mom was working, so she would send me to my playroom,” Risk said. “She was a model and she was married five times. Sometimes we’d shop at Salvation Army; sometimes we’d shop at Barneys. I learned how to dig and I learned what was quality, too.”
Risk’s paintings line the walls of the store, while the shelves carry jewelry and clothing from her travels to Indonesia. She supports other artists by stocking their handiwork, including sunglasses made by a student at FIT and jewelry made by an artist in Italy. She features an artist-in-residence as well, currently Taylor Hengesbach of Ette Art.
Risk’s knack for finding unique pieces has served her well in another side of her business: personal styling. In August, she was slammed with people looking for outfits for the Burning Man festival in Nevada. She finds the one-on-one styling sessions particularly meaningful. “I love doing the styling,” she said. Some women come to the store who have suffered personal trauma or setbacks, she said, “or they feel fat or they feel awful, and we just try to make you feel good and make you feel positive about yourself.”
As part of that good vibe, Risk works hard to banish any of the usual vintage-store mustiness. “I’m a germaphobe. Everything here is nicey-nicey-nice,” she said. Her advice to vintage-clothing shoppers is to avoid falling for just a cute look, and spend time inspecting the quality of the garment. “Make sure the stitching is proper” and check for stains and missing buttons, she said. Anything that says “union made” on the label tends to be of higher quality and holds its value better than other garments, Risk said.
Just as with her wares, the proprietor seems emotionally invested in her sidewalk artwork, which she notes was created with non-slip paint, specially made for concrete. While the alternating black-and-white squares remind some passers-by of Alice in Wonderland, which took place upon a large chessboard, to Risk it’s also a symbol of the hard work and smart moves needed to survive in business. Risk said she plans to go to court to defend it, armed with her petition.
The gallery and boutique are open Friday through Sunday from noon to 8 p.m. and Tuesday through Thursday by appointment, which can be made by emailing email@example.com.