Tyler Trinh and Jammie Waldron met while they were both working at Pottery Barn and slowly hatched the idea of owning their own home décor store. Perhaps lots of Pottery Barn employees have the same thoughts, only Tyler and Jammie actually did it this year. Jammie, who grew up in Harlem, found a former barber’s shop for rent in the fast-gentrifying streets around Morningside Park and they scraped together the financing to set up Harlem Heirloom, where Jammie works full-time. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” says Tyler, who seemed pretty sanguine about the risk of the venture not working out. “I mean we’re in our twenties, so if not now, when?”
I started reading about you on the Internet, at least I thought it was you, but after a few moments of reading these tweets, I realized that this wasn’t you at all but some high school student at Spring Valley High in California, so I got a very strange impression. I had to look up half of what he was saying on the Urban Dictionary and I was wondering how we were going to talk to you!
Like, “Does he speak a different language?” That’s very funny.
Well, that’s the danger of the Internet, I suppose. I saw that you started out working at Pottery Barn – what did you learn when you work for such a huge business like that?
It’s a different experience. It has such a corporate structure. It’s kind of like a tried-and-true, so everything is the same throughout. There are whole procedures and every store looks almost exactly alike. But I was lucky because I worked at Pottery Barn Teen and that was a new concept so we were kind of a leader of the branding. I had a lot of freedom to merchandise and display how I wanted. One thing the teens go crazy over is the faux fur… bean bags, slippers, hats. So I would have to do a “fur story” and things like that.
Did you admire the corporate view in some way?
It helped me learn about structure. If I hadn’t worked there, I would have had no idea how to run a business. I studied business management but I actually had no interest in home design or merchandising. In college I just happened to get this job at Pottery Barn and I loved it.
How did you take that leap of faith to go from working at Pottery Barn to setting up your own store?
We were actually down in Washington, in Georgetown, and that was our big inspiration. We were strolling along Wisconsin Avenue and there were millions of antique shops and fabulous home décor stores. We were so inspired, especially by the antique pieces, just how many people have owned them, the stories and the rich histories behind them. We were walking along the canal and came up with the whole idea of the store. The stuff we sell—they’re not antiques—but they will be some day. They’re future antiques, if you will. That’s how we came up with the concept of the store.
How did you get from concept to reality, then? How did you pull together the financing for it?
If there’s a will, there’s a way! I’m very grateful to my parents—they helped in getting the lease. Jammie can find anything on the Internet, he’s like the best researcher ever and he found this diamond-in-the-rough space. It was a barber’s shop that had been neglected, a disaster. We were peeking in the windows at ten o’clock one night and we were like, “This is it. It’s perfect.”
And it had to be in Harlem?
So Jammie is from Harlem. He is very familiar with the area. We saw people like Patrick Harris buying a brownstone in Harlem. We saw all these other people moving up there; the store is right off of Morningside Park—it’s gorgeous and there’s this young family feel up there.
Did you have moments of doubt?
A little bit. When you start seeing like, the legal, government kind of stuff, it’s a little overwhelming, all the requirements, the licenses, the tax forms … you need to send this and this and this. Luckily with home décor, it’s a little bit more lenient but if it’s any business to do with food … forget it! The way you have to think of it is that, “I’m doing it for myself—I’m going to reap the benefits.”
What sorts of things sell the best?
It’s kind of the opposite of what we thought! I saw these blue-and-white vases and they were, you know, quite nice … you know, everyone likes blue-and-white for summer but Jammie was like, “meh” – gone! We sold out. But then we had these melamine “paper plates” which we thought would fly out of the store. They’re so cool and great for kids—you know you see strollers everywhere now in Harlem– but [those plates] just sort of hung around.
Did you grow up in a city?
I’m from Ohio and I started college at Ohio State …
That’s a big football college.
Right. And I wasn’t into the school spirit. You need to wear like, red and gray every day to fit in … so you know, I moved to New York.
How did your family take the news that you were moving to New York?
They still think that I’m moving back. [laughs]. I’m an only child so it’s hard for them.
My mother grew up there and my dad is actually from Vietnam. He moved here when he was in his twenties.
Do you have any connection to Vietnam yourself?
I don’t unfortunately. My dad has never really had any interest in going. Now I’m trying to push them to go because I have the travel bug. I think the reason why my dad doesn’t really want to go is because it’s so different now, you know he has these great memories. He’s from Saigon, so it’s now a 21st century city. He left right after the fall of Saigon.
Does he ever talk to you about that?
Not really. It’s kind of like, “I’m here now. I’ve established my life here.” Some of his family still lives there. Before South Vietnam fell to Communism, his family was really successful. They have a really, really huge house. The way I hear it, it’s like a whole city block in Saigon. They’ve had to buy it back from the government several times but they’ve managed to maintain it.
So you say you have the travel bug—where else would you like to travel?
Actually Jammie and I just got back from Dubai. It was my first international trip. So it was like, what else is out there?
What did you think of Dubai?
You see all these photos of it being like, futuristic but I still felt that there would be some of that Middle Eastern Arabic charm and culture—and it just really wasn’t there. I thought there would be authentic restaurants and shopping but it’s really not. There was a Popeye’s and a Pizza Hut on every corner.
Okay, so I have one last question: Where did you get all those Hermès boxes?
Um … I’m kind of an addict.