At Studio Manhattan, we love innovators. We applaud people who create things. We identify with those who take an idea, turn it into a project, and then grow it into a business. (Given the fact that we ourselves were born on the backseat of a Vespa – from the accelerated ambitions of a Turkish photojournalist – this is hardly surprising.) Charles Branstool, owner and founder of Exit9 The Gift Emporium, is one of those people. It began during his college years, when, in order to make ends meet, Branstool developed a line of re-purposed products called Funky Junk. Post-college, Funky Junk gave way to Exit9 – a show-stopping selection of gifts and novelties – and today, the product pioneer runs two successful stores – one in Manhattan’s East Village, and the other in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. We stopped by the Brooklyn location to catch up with one of our oldest customers.
SM: Tell us a little bit about the products that comprise Exit9. What do you typically look for when sourcing merchandise for your stores?
CB: Anything that is tragically clever is hard for me to say no to. Anything that helps save space in a New York City apartment… or that can serve a dual purpose – like a ring that’s also a bottle opener – is another thing that might turn me on. Overall, I seek out products that are designed in a smart and clever way.
SM: So what attracts you to Studio Manhattan’s products and why do you think your customers gravitate towards them?
CB: The Studio Manhattan line falls within the definition of dual purpose design. A Studio Manhattan wallet or [credit card] case can function on its own, but because of the [urban] imagery, it allows people to kind of take a piece of New York home with them. It gives people the functionality of a coin purse, for example, but then also they get to take New York back to Nebraska or wherever they are from. And the products aren’t designed in a souvenir shop way. They’re done in a very sophisticated, New York way.
SM: What is your favorite product in the store right now?
CB: I’m a scientist at heart (I’m really in the wrong career!), so this pocket microscope is probably one of my all-time favorites. It doesn’t take any batteries, and it magnifies the item that you want to look at by thirty times. It’s one piece, so there’s also nothing to break. You can take it into the woods with you and magnify mosquitoes – that’s what I do.
SM: What, in your experience, has been the biggest challenge of building a business from scratch?
CB: The challenge of starting a business, for me, was that I was really flying by the seat of my pants. I was new to the city, with this little idea in my head, and I just sort of went for it without any real business knowledge. So the learning curve was the biggest challenge for me. [Looking back,] I wish that I had taken at least a couple of business courses.
SM: What has been the most fulfilling aspect of this journey?
CB: I would say the biggest reward has been becoming a part of the neighborhood. We are very connected to our neighborhoods, unlike most corporate companies. We really represent a face to the community, a place that helps build the community into what it is.
Over the past year, we have finally been able to give a little back to the community. So we [now] have this program called Tuesdays for Good, [where] ten percent of sales generated every Tuesday will go to a non-profit. This month’s non-profit is called Badass Brooklyn, which is an animal shelter in Brooklyn. So that’s been a very feel-good component.
I also like to see how local artists can produce their own line, and watch them come into the market place.
SM: Do you love what you do? Tell us why.
CB: I do love my job. I love it when people can walk in and be wow’ed by what they see. Because I feel that way too about these products.