If you're in the market for a sea salt body scrub, 13-year-old Essence Johnson will help you find it. And if you desire a custom-scented oatmeal based lotion, she can probably help you with that as well.
Surrounded by exotic soaps, mud-based body washes and over 1,000 scented oils with titles that range from "Baby Powder" to "Lick Me All Over," Essence takes her new job seriously. She should - it's her name on the door at House of Essence, the high-end fragrance boutique her parents opened Friday on Pratt Street in downtown Hartford.
"She's got to stand behind the quality," quips her stepmother, co-owner Niwkia Honore.
Essence's father, Jermaine Johnson, previously owned a convenience store and did promotion for nightclubs. He's confident that the couple has a sound business strategy to make House of Essence, which they've financed entirely out of personal savings, a success
The concept for a fragrance boutique is unusual for Connecticut, and that's exactly why Jermaine Johnson thinks it will work. He's been making plans for the store since 2007 and says he first saw a shop like this during travels to other parts of the country. "On the West Coast, this is big. In the Midwest, this is big. Down South you'll find a million of these," he says. "In Connecticut though, there's nothing like this around."
Downtown Hartford streets in general, and Pratt Street specifically, have had a mixed record of success for traditional retailers. Nearby Stackpole Moore Tryon Tuesday's is a stalwart on the corner of Trumbull Street, but several upscale stores have left Pratt Street over the years, including two jewelers, Becker's and Lux Bond & Green, and many have passed up the opportunity in a still-soft economy for consumer goods.
Johnson said he's undaunted.
"If you analyze downtown Hartford and this district, there's a million restaurants," Johnson said. "Where's the clothing stores? Where's the fragrance boutiques? Where's my competition?"
House of Essence has exclusive rights to sell the various lines of high-end lotions, hand soaps and body scrubs and candles it carries in the downtown ZIP code area, which Johnson believes is key - both the rights and the location. Although the couple considered locating House of Essence elsewhere, he said the store needed the kind of foot traffic Pratt Street provides, as well as what he describes as the "upscale environment" of downtown.
Another way that he plans to help House of Essence succeed is by validating parking in a local garage for customers who make a purchase of $20 or more. He says he's gotten over $1,400 in parking tickets personally and thinks that a lack of parking is a serious limitation for local businesses. "If they can't find parking they're going to keep going. I'm never going to sell anything."
Honore says that she and Johnson are already passing their business savvy and money values on to their three children. Opening the store without taking out loans was very important for the couple, who live in Newington.
"When it comes to credit, I let them know, credit is you. That's your number in life," said Honore, originally from Hartford.
It will be a least a few years before Essence needs to deal with credit. For now she'll just work on tackling the marketing world, which she seems to be doing in stride. Although Honore and Johnson had not planned to have their grand opening until Friday evening, when Mayor Pedro Segarra and others were expected to attend, the first customers trickled in hours earlier - and Essence took the reins.
"We just came here and people just started walking in," Essence said. And so she helped her family with their shop's first sale.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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