|Rena Monogenis, co-owner of Stoa Jewelry|
The heart of Forest Hills can be found along Austin Street, which was once dotted with both simple and upscale mom-and-pop shops reminiscent of a small town. Today, much has changed with the rise of some large corporations often occupying a few storefronts, but the business district retains its Tudor village and Colonial charm.
Nestled between that charm is a gem, where multi-generational patrons come upon a recessed flagstone entryway, sided by tastefully decorated window displays under a rustic wooden sign that reads “Stoa Jewelry.”
Enter Stoa at 71-60 Austin Street, and whether you are a longtime or new patron you will be greeted with a smile and the amiable demeanor of business owners Marie Sinanian and Rena Monogenis.
They have been giving their heart to the community for nearly 45 years by offering custom-produced jewelry, as well as art from local artists.
Making your way inside, the rustic charm continues with wood-and-glass wall and counter displays of custom-made jewelry, high ceilings bearing accent lights on artwork, a rugged plaster wall finish, and wood plank floors. Classical music adds to the gallery ambiance.
Customization is a dominant aspect of Stoa’s mission. “We design every type of jewelry that can be worn, from looks that are classic to way out there,” said Monogenis.
Jewelry is handcrafted in a variety of materials, including sterling silver or gold. Jewelry was originally produced in the back of the shop, but now the owners sketch the designs by hand and it is custom made off premise by local and international artists.
“If you want cufflinks and you have the design, we can execute the design, but if you want us to design it, we can from scratch,” said Monogenis. “If you wanted to create your own family crest, you would tell us what elements are very important to your family, and then we would design it using symbols.”
A notable custom-made design is a sterling silver barbell pendant, where the weight actually fluctuates. A sculptor from Germany designed a universe-inspired abstract sphere comprised of sterling silver rings with a single gold bead. It collapses and expands, and can be worn as a bracelet.
Customers often refer local artists to Stoa, and the owners fulfill their mission to the community by selling their work, which ranges from classical to abstract. Currently, paintings from three local artists are on display. Proceeds from the sale of the artwork are shared between Stoa and the artist.
Sinanian emigrated from Greece with her family in 1962, and settled in Forest Hills. Monogenis was born in Manhattan, but in 1950 at the age of 8, she made a move to Forest Hills. Both are Forest Hills residents to this day.
In 1968, Sinanian began working for her brother-in-law, who once owned Lorilil Jewelers on Continental Avenue. After learning the business firsthand, she took the initiative in 1972 to open her own jewelry shop on Austin Street, known as “A Bit Outre.”
Monogenis, then an employee of Chemical Bank, decided to change her career path not long after befriending Sinanian, and she took some jewelry design classes at the 92nd Street Y. Sharing a mutual vision, their friendship evolved into a business partnership, and on October 2, 1976, they opened Stoa Jewelry.
It may be hard to grasp that the jewelry business was neither owner’s childhood dream, but now it is their niche. Monogenis, who first envisioned being a clothing designer at age 11, attributes part of their success to a balance between their work styles.
“I work more from the heart, whereas Marie works more from the mind,” she said.
Stoa was originally situated further west on Austin Street in a portion of what is now Victoria’s Secret. Sinanian coined the business name due to the large recessed storefront’s configuration, which resembled a portico or arcade in Greek culture.
“A stoa was an ancient structure that was long and narrow, had columns and a roof, and was the town center where markets and meetings took place and people would sit and think,” she explained.
When asked how she felt being one of the last Austin Street mom-and-pop shops, she said, “I feel truly wonderful, and I must say that after all these years, we have been blessed with wonderful customers who have become friends.”
She then reminisced about yesteryear’s well-known mom-and-pop shops in close proximity. There was Buster Brown Shoes, Homestead Gourmet Shop, Beau Brummel (clothing), Koch and Nord Delicacies, Horn & Hardart, Towne Shepherd (hair salon), Thorn & Thistle (florist), Ina’s (millinery shop), and Madeline Begg, which she described as an exquisite dress shop owned by her neighbor.
Throughout the years, Stoa’s clientele has included notables such as Geraldine Ferraro, former professional tennis player Renée Richards, Dennis Hevesi, and judges. Within Stoa’s walls, countless memories are harbored relating to the relationship between the owners and patrons, on the basis of the character of the owners and which extends into their custom-made jewelry.
This contributes to stories ranging from humorous to heart-warming. For example, a long-standing American craftswoman from Maine named Peggy Johnson worked with Stoa to produce a sterling silver necklace with copper-and-stone accents, and dangling kitchen pots and utensils as a focal point.
“A man came into our shop and purchased it for his wife,” Monogenis recalled. “When he returned, he said the rest of his life won’t be the same, since he will never be able to give his wife another gift that she would enjoy as much.”
A heart-warming story followed.
“We designed a necklace for a woman who was the mother of a bride, and based it on the dress she planned to wear at the wedding,” Monogenis said. “She was thrilled, and thanked us with a photo of her outfit during the wedding.”
As for younger generations hoping to launch a jewelry and art business, Monogenis offered some pointers.
“Follow your dream,” she said. “If it is a true love, that will make your entire life a lot easier. Especially since we are in poor economic times, start small.” Referring to her experience, she added, “We could have expanded way back when, but we felt good with this size, which our customers helped accomplish. I don’t believe that success is measured strictly by money.”
On a Saturday afternoon, 10-year-old Ian Fried and his mother engaged in conversation with Monogenis. He was impressed when he learned about Stoa’s custom-made mission. Some items reminded him of his recent interest in collecting antiques, but only time will tell if it will unfold into his niche.
“It’s my first time here, and it’s a very artistic store,” he said. His mother first shopped at Stoa in 1990, and now the younger generation is being introduced. Fried said, “I always pictured these pieces as old-fashioned items from the early to mid-industrial revolution, but now this has given me a whole new light on antiques and how they are made."
“Customers over the years become the mamas, the papas, and an acquired family,” Monogenis said. “They know if they need a place to sit, rest, and socialize over coffee, they can come to us.”