How Katrina Parris Is Strengthening Harlem by Bringing Back the Gift of Giving

For six years, NiLu has been the one-stop brick and mortar destination for residents, artists, and visitors alike.

DESIGN BY CHINEME ELOBUIKE FOR THRILLIST

Contrary to what people often think of New York City, you can find a sense of community here. It might not be exactly like the suburbs but there’s a different kind of energy in the relationships you make with the people around you, depending on where you reside. One of those places is Harlem, a neighborhood of primarily Black and Latino communities, located in Uptown Manhattan. Despite its rapid gentrification, locals have managed to find initiatives to preserve Harlem’s history, cultures, and community. That’s exactly what entrepreneur Katrina Parris wanted to achieve with NiLu, a gift shop curated with local makers, Black-owned brands, and other items that celebrate and support the neighborhood.

Before opening NiLu, Parris owned a flower shop in the same location, helping locals get their fresh flowers and arrangements without having to go downtown. After 15 years of owning her own business, she noticed that Harlem had other amenities that she wanted to provide, one of them being the need for a permanent space where local makers could sell their products. That’s when she decided to close the flower shop and open NiLu. Located on Malcolm X Boulevard, between 119th and 120th streets, the store is a perfect combination of home decor, memorabilia, wearable pieces, and wellness products.

We spoke with Parris about what Harlem means to her, the inspiration behind the store curation, how to master the art of purposeful gifting, and her personal gift recommendations.

Thrillist: What does Harlem mean to you? Can you describe the energy of the neighborhood for someone that hasn’t visited before?
Katrina Parris: It's special to me because I've been in Harlem since 1991. So I feel like it's the place I've lived the longest, even compared to where I grew up in Massachusetts. So I always refer to it as my second coming of age. What I love about Harlem is that it's in New York City, the capital of the world, but it's like a small town. It feels like it is a village, neighborhood, community, and family.

[People] don't even identify Harlem as being part of Manhattan. That's how special it is. But you can't really understand it until you feel it and experience it. I grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts where everybody knew everybody and it's a very small world. In Harlem, it feels very much like that. The irony of it is that it's New York City, but Harlem is its own little place. You walk down the street and people say good morning. There's just always that kind of like, “I see you, how are you doing?”—it's a good feeling. Having now raised my two boys, I always tell them, "Listen, don't do anything stupid because before you even get home, I'm going to hear about it." The community is watching.

Let's talk a little bit about NiLu. Tell me the story behind it and what made you open a retail store in Harlem?
NiLu is named after our two sons, Nigel and Luke, and it is our second family business. We had a floral business in Harlem for 15 years, and we sold that business in 2015. The idea of walking by this place every day (because our house is around the corner from the store) really bothered me. That was a big part of it, along with just wanting to figure out what the next move was going to be. We started the flower business in 2000, which [at the time] there weren't any flower shops in Harlem. A lot of our same customers were the floral customers that would come in from time to time to buy flowers or have flowers sent to people that they know; there was still like this kind of gift desert, if you will.

Having lived [in Harlem] for so long, I knew that there were amenities that we were lacking. [Combining] that with our culture and seeing through, quite frankly, gentrification, I wanted to kind of find a space or a place where we could kind of look at solving a couple of problems, at least, a gift desert being one and another one being [the lack of] platform for makers, [especially] local makers. There was an occasional marketplace that would happen from time to time, but nothing consistent. [I thought], okay, we're not selling flowers, but people would come into the store when we had it as a flower shop a lot and ask “where could I get a card or where could I get a gift for somebody?” So when we had sold the flower store, we converted the space into a marketplace for makers, a place for people to come in and buy nice gift items. In [four months] we'd converted our space and procured just a lot of cool items. Not only with makers from Harlem, but beyond, as well as from other smaller manufacturers.

NiLu

What’s your approach when curating the products/brands at NiLu? How does your culture inspire the process?
Our global products are fair trade and usually geared towards supporting women artisans. I just really wanted to have a collective place that offered the platform for makers and an artist, as well as a place that was preserving or trying to continue the legacy of what Harlem was. It is definitely what we feel is a preservation of black culture through different mediums. So for example, what I call an iconic range of coffee table books that go from everything from Harlem Renaissance Jazz to Hip Hop, to seventies Black power movement. From day one, we've featured local makers, such as Flo and Theo, who are two sisters from Harlem who created and started manufacturing their own health, personal beauty lines, cocoa butters, and essential oils. As well as the Maloney Brothers who are the proprietors and creators of Sol Cacao Chocolate, which they source cocoa beans from Madagascar, Peru, and Ecuador. Maiko Suzuki who has been a Harlem resident for over a decade and hand makes statement piece jewelry. Once Terry Johnson was primed up to do wholesale, Harlem Candle Company was one of our first candle companies that we offered at NiLu. 

What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned throughout this journey?
There's so many. Even in this age of technology and Amazon and not having to leave your home to shop, I've learned that people still want to be connected. They want to feel and touch. They want to look you in the eye. Once they learn what the [maker’s] story of how this product came to be, it elevates the experience. A lot of people are more mindful of how they spend their money, who they spend their money with, and brick and mortar gives that opportunity to have that experience of, not only tantalizing the five senses, but to also learn about the actual makers. You can have Amazon 24 hours a day, but there's nothing that's going to replace that connection that people get at brick and mortar, when you walk through the door and someone says, “Hey, how are you doing?” There's nothing like that.

What’s the most important part of creating a community for you, especially in Harlem?
When [people] come through the door, it's like they're coming in through my door at home. I want them to be comfortable. I want them to ask any questions and to share. It's a good feeling that NiLu has that sense of community. [Starting from] the vibe of the music, we're very purposeful and intentional about what we play and on what day and on what time because music speaks to people.

What we've developed over these short six years has been, not only an incubator for new makers, but also, if we're not able to carry their item in our store, we offer the front of the store for what we call NiLu Village Market for makers to come in and sell their wares outside of the store. We use our social platform to support that and to let people know. [During] COVID, we've started artist spotlight, where we work with local artists and we hang the art in our store and a hundred percent of that the sale of their artwork goes to the artist, which is unheard of. We don't charge them anything. That's been a really successful program that we're going to continue. As well as offering musicians to play in front of the store, who we've been able to coordinate with since COVID. So it's something that we really believe strongly in and felt like the community would be well served as well as the makers.

You talk about purposeful gifting, can you explain what you mean by that?
Growing up as the youngest of nine children, on your birthday and Christmas it was primarily when you got gifts. You didn't get gifts because you graduated school, there was none of that. So it was very important that, because you didn't get gifts very often, when we were gifting to each other, and what you got was important. It had to be mindful. One of the best gifts I ever got was from my sister who gifted me a t-shirt that she had. It was a red t-shirt that had Saturn on it and had bedazzled beads on the chest. I wore the hell out of that shirt and she knew how much I loved it. It was hers, it was secondhand, but I loved that shirt. I mean, that's the kind of mindfulness and thoughtfulness.

When we curate NiLu, there are items that are not only about supporting the makers and the artisans but it's also about being mindful. I want you to really think about what the occasion is, who the person is. There's a utilitarian purpose to it because we consume a lot of stuff, so being mindful and thinking: what does that person need? What would they like? What would it make them feel better? How do they identify themselves? What is your relationship to them? How would you describe the person? Are they more of a classic or a trendy person?

DESIGN BY CHINEME ELOBUIKE FOR THRILLIST

What gifts would you recommend for a friend, a special person in your life, and someone that you recently met?
Tea is one of those things that everybody drinks. Right now, we have three different teas by three black tea makers: Brooklyn Tea, Modestine Tea, and Adjourn Teahouse. We [also] have a tea strainer, local honey from Lomar Farms, as well as tea cups, saucers, and teapots. So for somebody that I know, whether it's intimate, I just met, or I'm just getting to know, I always offer that up. A coffee table book is a great gift to give to somebody, If you know what their interests are. We've got a great book that is based off of A Great Day in Harlem, a photograph by Art Kane that talks about that day that photograph was shot. It's a great pictorial of what happened on that day, for jazz enthusiasts as well as Harlem enthusiasts.

There are games that we offer, dominoes, and a couple of novelty things that make great gifts for somebody that you're just meeting. For people who have a love of Harlem, we have a great line of NiLu products that are pillows, coasters, mugs. People have a certain way, just like Brooklyn diehards, you've got Harlem diehards who love that Harlem pride.

What’s next for NiLu?
We now have NiLu’s online store and we ship across the country. [We are currently] on the west coast to source more vendors and makers of color. I'm here connecting with a few makers that we already offer at NiLu who are from LA. I'm here to meet them in person and talk to them, do interviews, but also to source some additional makers as well. We started our west coast trip in Oakland, where we met with a couple of makers from there. We're really looking to cast a wider net of makers of color.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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