You wouldn’t be wrong to assume that Sharon Hershkowitz (above right, with her daughter Tiffany) has a blast 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!” The funnest store around—and possibly in the city—is the place for party materials, stuffed animals, giant inflatables, jokes and gags, nostalgia toys, candy, and a lot more.
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.
When 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.
What’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.
Least expensive item?
Pop Pops for $1.50.
How do you source stuff?
Trade shows. Tons and tons of trade shows. And reading trade publications. And trusting my instincts.
Tribeca 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.
Tell 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?
Photographs by Claudine Williams, who specializes in head shots for actors, business professionals, or anyone looking to be photographed.