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The Proprietor of The Brass Owl

Juggling. That’s what Nicole Panettieri excels at.
She has two babies – a two-year-old named Nate and a seven-year-old she called, for no deep, compelling reason, other than that it sounds so cute, The Brass Owl.
Each is more than a full-time job, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Nate is at home with his father, so things will be a little easier at The Brass Owl today.
Nicole, who lives within walking distance of the shop, has long, dark hair, a petite paw tattoo on her left arm and a personality as big as her brown horn-rimmed glasses, which are equipped with blue-light lenses because her business keeps her glued to her smartphone screen.
The Brass Owl – the black-and-white logo, of course, is an owl with long, curly eyelashes – is a community-centric gift and accessory shop that sells everything from “Astoria” T-shirts to Tarot cards, exotic-scented candles, honey and hot sauce and jewelry and cat-shaped coffee mugs.
Most of the merchandise is made by local artists and craftspeople, and nearly everything is less than $100.
“With the local artists, I can tell you a story about every piece in the shop,” Nicole says. “I can tell you how I met them, what they are like and how many kids they have.”
Retail runs in Nicole’s blood: Her great-grandfather established a shoe-repair shop in 1928, which her grandfather eventually took over. Her parents ran their own small retail businesses before their recent retirements.
Nicole, who was born in Bergen County, New Jersey, moved to Boca Raton, Florida, when she was in high school.
After graduating with a degree in marketing from the University of Florida, she got a job as a shoe and accessories buyer with Macy’s in Atlanta, the city where she spent the first decade of her career.
While working as a buyer for the discount chain K & G, she got a job offer in New York City from another chain, Ross Stores.
“I had just turned 30 and was single,” she says, adding that she had made up her mind early on to return to the East Coast. “I lived in the East Village for three years and loved it.”
When she met her future husband, she moved into his Astoria apartment.
“I’d always wanted to open my own business,” she says, adding that she chose the location, between Martha’s Country Bakery and a hair salon because she knew it would bring in enough foot traffic. “I felt an immediate connection with the neighborhood. It felt like home here.”
A year later, in 2014, she did, indeed, open The Brass Owl, which remains the only boutique concept shop in the Ditmars area.
Nicole, who is teaching a course in retail math applications at FIT, makes it her business to support other local businesses. She founded and runs the collective Shop Small Astoria, which promotes independently owned retail stores in the neighborhood.
Through the years, The Brass Owl has continued to evolve, which is why it’s still in business and busy pretty much all the time.
During the pandemic, for instance, Nicole quickly updated her website, transitioning to all-online sales, and began creating carefully curated “care packages” that sell for $40 to $200.
“In retail, you have to adapt,” she says. “When I was working in the luggage department of Macy’s in 2001 and 9/11 happened, my boss moved out all the suitcases and stocked duffel bags instead because nobody was going to be flying. That has always stuck with me.”
Sales at The Brass Owl have been so brisk that Nicole is thinking of expanding the shop.
There’s some space in the back that could be used, or she may move the boutique to a larger location nearby.
An hour before opening, a customer walks in.
She’s looking for a gift.
Nicole’s not yet set up to make the sale – she has to open the cash register – but the woman promises to make her selection swiftly and offers to pay in cash.
Five minutes later, she goes to the counter with two “Astoria” T-shirts.
“I came in for only one,” she says as she pays. “But I bought one for myself, too.”
After she wraps the gift in tissue paper and ribbons, Nicole smiles.
She really loves this shop and this neighborhood.
“We’re here to stay forever,” she says as she flips the “closed” sign in the front window to “open.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyruhling and visit astoriacharacters.com.

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