It’s a brisk day in early January at J&R Jr. and Jason Friedman is showing his wife and kids what has kept him so busy for the past six months. The space isn’t quite finished, shelves are only partially stocked and luggage still lingers in the performance area, but a gaggle of happy children tinkering with a wooden train set hint at what it will feel like on February 13th when the ribbon is cut and the landmark store’s newest department officially opens.
Originally a part-time venture selling records out of a downtown Manhattan basement, J&R was founded in 1971 by Joe and Rachelle Friedman using the money they had received as wedding gifts. They soon combined Joe’s interest in electronics and Rachelle’s interest in music—not to mention their first initials—to create what has become the famous Manhattan music and electronics megastore. Since then, the business has grown to cover everything from guitars and home theaters to housewares. It’s also a cultural destination with intimate performances inside and free concerts every summer outside in City Hall Park, just across the street from their block-long hub.
Growing up in such a musical environment led Joe and Rachelle’s son, Jason, to develop a strong interest in music himself. “I grew up being the lucky kid to get to meet all these rock stars,” he recalls. Some of the many legends that have passed through the store include Michael Jackson, Harry Connick, Jr., Tony Bennett and Beyoncé.
During the dot-com boom, Jason decided to build a website for his parents’ store. “Everybody was saying ‘You have to get your business online,’ but nobody really knew what that meant,” he recalls. Today, JR.com makes up more than half of the company’s business.
In August 2001, Friedman left to attend business school at the University of Southern California, just weeks before September 11th. Because J&R is only a few blocks from Ground Zero, the events of that tragic day hit the company hard. Friedman made the quick decision to come home and help restart the family business.
J&R was able to reopen after a six-week shutdown. And for Friedman, his return to NYC held more than rebuilding a company. “Luckily, I met Danielle, my wife, within two weeks of moving back,” he shares.
Ten years later, Friedman has a four-year-old daughter, Micole, and a one-year-old son, Oliver. Although his focus now is on family, he still loves gadgets. And after spending many hours browsing websites and visiting baby megastores, he realized just how much cool stuff for kids was out there. “I just wanted to be a part of it and thought I could put my spin on it,” he explains.
After checking with friends and doing some further research, he learned that while consumers were not spending much money on themselves due to concerns about the economy, they were happy to spend money on their children. Between his enthusiasm and the clear commercial reasons for catering to parents, it was practically a no-brainer to incorporate it into the family business.
The recently-opened J&R Jr. offers parents—and particular new and expectant moms and dads—the same mix of excellent products and expert service that J&R has always given tech enthusiasts. This comprises the standard fare of gadgets and electronics like baby monitors and humidifiers, but also includes kids’ clothing, strollers, high chairs, car seats, safety accessories and some furniture, as well as learning toys and games. Major brands that you can find in the store are phil&ted’s, Quinny, 4moms, Edushape, Alex, Melissa & Doug, Leapfrog, Skip Hop, Faber Castell, B. Toys and many more.
But the store won’t sell just anything. Friedman intends to hand select only the best offerings for kids ages 0-9. He is particularly impressed with how advanced strollers have become in recent years. In order to demonstrate these improvements, there will be a stroller test course shaped like a lollypop at J&R Jr. It will have a variety of terrain, including gravel and grass, so parents can test on a range of surfaces and obstacles.
Friedman’s vision for J&R Jr. includes more than just cool gear and educational toys and games. “[The financial district] is the fastest growing residential community in the city…but there really is no community center [or] kids’ hang-out hub,” he says. The store will be able to serve that function with an event space that will host interactive classes, workshops and panels. This event/performance area is located at the top of the escalator and will be available to host private parties, prenatal classes and school admissions seminars, as well as public events. It will include professional sound and lighting equipment for concerts, which will be streamed online. Fans of Rockin’ with Andy and Little Maestros will be pleased to know that the perennial New York City kids’ favorites have already agreed to do classes.
In addition to serving families who live in the neighborhood, J&R Jr. is the perfect place for families to meet up for a class and a quick bite in the kid-friendly café after parents leave the office. Families from further away won’t be left out either. J&R is adding a free parking garage, removing the biggest hassle of going downtown.
Looking ahead, Friedman would love to have his children eventually join the company sphere. “If they want to come here, I would absolutely welcome them and of course, I want this to stay a family business,” he says.
But whether the next generation chooses to take an active role or not, the range of products offered by J&R will continue to grow. “We’re just adapting to the needs of consumers,” Friedman explains, pointing out some of the many changes that have occurred over J&R’s 40-year history, from new offerings in electronics, hi-fi and TVs to more domestic goods like housewares and J&R Jr.
No one knows what the next 40 years will bring, but J&R plans to be there, providing savvy New Yorkers with “the gadgets of the decade.”
For more information on classes and seminars at J&R Jr., visit newyorkfamily.com/events.