Change seems to be a constant at Party Favors. The two main, Beacon Street-facing windows of Coolidge Corner’s celebration-supplier, gift store and bakery, are constantly changing, cycling through each year’s holiday and party themes. The year opens with Mardi Gras. A birthday-related theme, Easter, Passover, and a general Spring window come next. The displays turn to graduation in May, then a summer theme and Independence Day. A luau continues the fair-weather spirit. Then the autumn displays appear – Halloween, Thanksgiving, and an overarching Fall window are followed by a Christmas, Hannukah, and Winter display.
Holidays are a big deal at Party Favors. In fact, for Halloween 2010 and 2011, owners Mary Lynn and John Pergantis—who took time to talk with me about their enterprise on a recent afternoon—opened a pop-up store on Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University. “2010 was ok,” stated Mr. Pergantis, in his late 40s with a salt-and-pepper mane and facial hair, but the early snowstorm last Fall “killed Halloween.”
Other trends and man-made commercial realities have prompted the couple to make a significant change in their operations, which they mentioned publicly for the first time in our interview. Party Favors will, in the near future, largely downsize the gifts portion of their store, move the present bakery space where the party supplies are currently, and vice-versa, offering a more exclusive, boutique selection of gifts in the half of the store closest to Centre Street. Mrs. Pergantis explains, “more unique items” will be available in the gift area and a “more focused” store will take advantage of the ever-growing bakery business. She described the party portion of the business as “high maintenance,” as most items just end up sitting in inventory.
In addition, the actual bakery—currently located below the gift area of Party Favors—will expand to the back of that street-level floor with an open-bakery set-up visible behind the new baked goods area. The couple cite the Internet as a major reason why party merchandisers industry-wide are suffering. For example, they said a Dora the Explorer® party decorations set on Amazon.com costs about $20; pricing against which merchandisers cannot compete. As a sign of the times, a recent trade fair in Houston, Texas was, unlike earlier years, very poorly attended. Also, invitations are “a dying breed,” Mr. Pergantis noted, though Party Favors will still carry wedding, Bar/Bat Mitzvah invitationss as well as Crane stationary. Gifts from this past holiday season are now on sale for 90% off, he added, to help reduce the stock.
Party Favors is “responding to trends, how people communicate,” Mrs. Pergatis explains, with her husband stating that they are “taking the store to the next level.” Then he asks, “Is there a word for that?” His wife chuckles and offers: “Evolving.” In all seriousness, Mr. Pergantis bookends this section of our conversation by saying, in response, “If we don’t, we’re not going to be there.”
A trained pastry chef, Mr. Pergantis is originally from Brookline, graduating from the Driscoll School, and from Brookline High School in 1982. Then, he went to the Culinary Institute of America in New York City. He and his wife took over the store from the previous owners about ten years later, and Party Favors—under their management—will celebrate its 20th anniversary on April 1st of this year.
When they started out, the custom-order cake business was the main part of the establishment the former owners had in place. They explained that the number of people special-ordering cakes rose from a mere 10 to 100. Interestingly, the original 10 have remained among the 2012 list for those regularly picking up cakes – a testament to the staying power of Party Favors—and sweet teeth.
Another constant, according to Mr. Pergantis, has been their employees. He said they are “blessed to have a great staff that makes it happen.” There is a mix of about 28 full and part-time staff, he and Mrs. Pergantis estimate. At 3 p.m. on the Monday I visit the store (which happens to be Martin Luther King Day), one person is working on the party side, while six are on the bakery side, again giving credence to the Pergantises’ plans to refocus Party Favors’ set-up.
Another constant in the couple’s business is charitable giving. They try to support all local elementary schools and Brookline High School. In addition, Party Favors has actively supported the Brookline Emergency Food Pantry as well. In fact, in the past two years, the bakery/store raised several hundreds of dollars for the Pantry through its participation in the Feed Brookline Drive. The two support anumber of other charities; as John Pergantis observed: “You have to give back to the world, to the community. We’ve been blessed.”
Pergantis spread blessings as well; in 2006, he met Cristina Powell, a young girl with Cerebral Palsy who creates art in the form of paintings on cards, canvas and t-shirts. Mr. Pergantis saw the cards, thought they were “very cool” and agreed to sell them in Party Favors and give Ms. Powell a percentage. Five years ago, Valentine’s Day cards adorned with Powell’s artwork went into the store’s window for the holiday. Then, after Mr. Pergantis fell ill, an annex in the now-named Beacon Way walkway next to the Party Favors building (intended to be addition to the business), was given by Pergantis as a gift to Cristina. He doesn’t charge her for the space, where she operates a gallery of her work. He calls her “a great kid, with a great outlook on life.”
As I conclude my visit, John Pergantis shows me the store’s basement bakery and where a wall had to be continually moved towards the building’s street-side to accommodate the growing baking business. Now, when you descend the staircase from the gifts side of the store to the bakery, there is a pantry-like space with a variety of cake-decorating supplies that Mr. Pergantis says generates a good amount of sales and customer interest.
By way of summing up the ethic around the small business—and of explaining the gradually expanding bakery wall—, he tells me it all comes down to hard work. And, he adds, “do something you love and it will pay off.” Good advice for any season.
By Andrew Palmacci