Spotlight: Balloon Saloon

Balloon Saloon Tiffany and Sharon by Claudine WilliamsBecause this site focuses on news, businesses that have been around awhile—and that make this neighborhood special—don’t get the coverage they should. The photographs are by Claudine Williams, who specializes in head shots for actors, business professionals, or anyone looking to be photographed. She also dabbles in street photography for fun. Originally from Philadelphia, she has made NYC her home for the past seven years with her husband and son.

Balloon Saloon3 by Claudine WilliamsYou wouldn’t be wrong to assume that Sharon Hershkowitz (above right, with her daughter Tiffany) has fun at the Balloon Saloon, the store she and her late husband, Jerry, opened at W. Broadway and Duane back in 1980. “Sometimes when I’m at the Armory or a ballroom installing balloons, I stop and look around at what we’ve created and I think, I’m getting paid for this!” Sharon and I met up during the calm before the storm that is Halloween, when the store doles out nearly $2,000 worth of candy to trick-or-treaters. As we were talking, she put a tiny miniature hand on one forefinger and a pink tentacle on the other, lending her gestures an appropriately kooky air.

How did you get started in this business?
Thirty or so years ago, my husband and I had a heat-transfer T-shirt kiosk inside E.J. Korvette, a department store at the time. But the store was going out of business. It was my husband’s birthday, so I bought two dozen balloons from a place in Long Island. The next day, he said, “Do you want to go into the balloon business?” I said, “Sure.” No one in the city was doing it. We ran an ad in New York magazine, and we had a VW Rabbit and a helium tank between the two bucket seats. My husband loved to dress up in western clothes, so we called it the Balloon Saloon. Our slogan was “Balloons delivered by a sensational cowboy.” See that cowboy on the wall? It was on our truck when we did deliveries.

Balloon Saloon9 by Claudine WilliamsWhen did you open this store? Why here?
It was around 1980. We needed to drum up retail business. At the time it was blue collar workers and office workers around here, not families, so we sold sexy novelties—wind-up penises, wind-up vaginas, things like that. And balloons, of course. As the neighborhood changed, we realized we’d reach a broader audience with retro items, things that call to mind days of old joy.

What are you known for?
Creating fabulous balloon arrangements for small parties to large affairs.

Balloon Saloon5 by Claudine WilliamsWhat’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
Seeing kids grow up—from being kids to going to college to getting married and bringing in their own kids. Their parents used to use the store as leverage: “You can’t go to the Balloon Saloon unless you do your homework!” Now they’re doing it to their kids! Some things never change. And I love watching people have a nostalgic moment when they the vintage things, like the Easy-Bake Oven.

Most popular item? Besides balloons, of course.
[“Poop!” yells a staffer.] Probably poop. And the balloon pets.

Balloon Saloon7 by Claudine WilliamsMost expensive?
Probably the $75 inflatable T. Rex.

Least expensive item?
Pop Pops for $1.50.

Balloon Saloon10 by Claudine WilliamsYour very favorite item right now?
The horse mask. I saw somebody in a cab once wearing it, just looking out of the window like everything was normal.

It reminds me of The Godfather…. How do you source stuff?
Trade shows. Tons and tons of trade shows. And reading trade publications. And trusting my instincts.

Balloon Saloon14 by Claudine WilliamsTribeca has obviously changed a lot. Any changes that have surprised you?
The disappearance of mom and pops, and seeing the neighborhood morph into a generic place with generic stores. People who move to vintage historic neighborhoods should appreciate the individuality and character that mom-and-pop stores give to a neighborhood. To understand there’s a beauty to that.

What percentage of your business is local?
I would say 75 percent of our retail clients are Tribeca locals. Delivery balloon decor and arrangements are all over the city and Brooklyn and Long Island City.

Balloon Saloon18 by Claudine WilliamsTell me a crazy customer story.
Michael Stipe, the lead singer of R.E.M., came in for a last-minute caviar costume that we had to make out of balloons on the spot. Or how about when I was talking face-to-face with Leonardo DiCaprio about a chess game—not even knowing it was him under his ski cap and sunglasses? Or when Rihanna was shopping here and a bride and groom from out of town, along with their guests, were heading for their private dinner at Tiny’s, and they peeked in to see what all the excitement was about. Rihanna took a wedding picture with them! How’s that for a surprise photo in their album?

Balloon Saloon15 by Claudine WilliamsWhere do you eat/drink/shop around here?
I like Calypso. And Earl Morgan’s is a great place to get a cup of coffee. [Earl Morgan was the original owner of Morgan’s Market.]

What does the future hold for the Balloon Saloon?
Keep getting bigger and better—who knows, maybe there will be more of them. Not with me, though! I’ll be on a boat in the Bahamas! I’m sure my daughter, Tiffany, will do great things with it. She’s the rock! The one person that gets everything rolling!

Balloon Saloon12 by Claudine WilliamsPreviously in this series:
••• Fountain Pen Hospital
••• Abhaya
••• Chambers Pottery
••• Square Diner
••• Langdon Florist
••• Tribeca Upholstery & Draperies
••• Double Knot
••• Philip Williams Posters

4 Comments

  1. I like this story. I like this series. I like this store.

  2. My daughter (19 years old) and I LOVE the Baloon Saloon. It’s so special and cozy and chases the blues away like nothing else. Really enjoyed learning about the history. Would have loved to have met the cowboy!

  3. POOP! I’ve bought that poop. And I’ve had to fend off many requests to bring home that $75 T-Rex. But luckily, they have smaller versions too! Love the Balloon Saloon.

  4. Thanks for doing this series. The Balloon Saloon has never failed me when I needed that perfect gift to make someone happy.

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