Instagram star surprised by his influence and uses it for good: 'I didn't have the highest hopes'

Katie Mather
·9 mins read

As a native New Yorker, Nico Heller has watched the city change dramatically over the years. But when the pandemic hit in March 2020, it became hard for him to witness small business owners and New York City establishments suffer without doing anything.

“Businesses are really, really struggling,” Heller told In The Know. “Landlords for the most part aren’t giving them a break, so I felt that now was the time to go super hard on profiles and shine a light on these businesses.”

At the start of the city’s lockdown, commercial tenants began falling behind on rent payments at unprecedented rates. Almost all businesses, with the exception of those that were deemed essential like grocery stores and pharmacies, were asking for discounts and deferrals. When the lockdown was lifted two months later, landlords jumped at the opportunity to regain their financial losses before these shops had time to properly recover.

Heller’s mention of profiles is in reference to his Instagram coverage of independent New York businesses — aptly under the hashtag #MomNPopDrop, which he started in 2018. He had paused the series but wanted to pick it up again following lockdown.

“I didn’t have the highest hopes. When I first started it, people dug it, but they preferred my other content more: candid New York interactions, interviews,” Heller explained. “When the pandemic happened I told myself that once things kind of started to get a little bit more back to normal — thinking about when everything was in lockdown — I would go really hard trying to help them out.”

The initial process was having small businesses film themselves and submit footage for Heller to post, utilizing his following of 434,000 people to serve almost like a form of free ad space. He quickly realized that not only did business owners lack the time to take photos or film footage, but many of them weren’t tech-savvy to begin with. So, Heller started visiting the establishments himself.

His first realization that he could really make a substantial change was when he visited Henry Yao, who owns the Army & Navy Bags surplus store in the Lower East Side.

“A friend of mine reached out to me about Henry, and I was familiar, I’d been to that shop a few times but I didn’t really know Henry like that,” Heller said. “He asked if I could do a post.”

Heller and his friend Gabe did a quick photoshoot with Yao and uploaded it to Instagram. To Heller’s surprise, tons of positive comments started rolling in — particularly from fellow New York natives who had grown up visiting the store.

“Amazing, amazing comments,” Heller said. “I guess I saw Henry’s shop in a bubble and didn’t realize he was such a beloved store owner in New York.”

Prior to the Instagram post, a customer had to set up a GoFundMe to help the store. After Heller’s upload, the platform raised around $20,000.

“Business was insane for the next week or so,” Heller said. “But I really wanted to save them, not just put a bandaid on a broken arm.”

The success with Yao’s store made Heller realize he really could help out a lot of local businesses in New York. He told In The Know that he refuses to take all of the credit though.

“I’m fortunate enough to have a big following, it’s like having access to a huge billboard on the freeway [and] that’s only doing so much,” he said. “When I show the lines, the impact that we’ve made, it’s more me congratulating the community for making this happen.”

As for the business owners that Heller’s been helping, they couldn’t be more thankful for him. Many of the people he’s interviewed have been working to keep their shops alive for decades.

“Everyone I’ve profiled has been so, so grateful and has been moved,” he said. “If they don’t have an Instagram, I just show them the comments people leave on the post. It’s important they understand the type of impact they have on the community.”

One of these owners is Mrs. Hayes, a 93-year-old woman who has been working at her hardware store in Bed-Stuy for 70 years.

“We love Mrs Hayes in our neighborhood!” a comment on Heller’s Instagram reads. “She has the best advice and even the best laugh!”

“It was really sweet,” Heller said about reading the Instagram comments to Mrs. Hayes. “They don’t get told these things to their face.”

“It makes me so happy to hear about my followers and other New Yorkers who caught wind of it and started flocking to these businesses,” Heller said of his page’s success. “I’m hoping that it doesn’t just impact these businesses that I’m profiling but raises awareness about mom-and-pop shops in general in NYC and the fact that they’re all struggling and they need our support.”

Heller says there are things people who want to help outside of New York can do, like buying books from independent shops rather than on Amazon. But when some of the owners admitted they didn’t have social media or even a shoppable website, Heller racked his brain for some way to help them out in the long run.

“Take Mercer Books on Mercer Street. Wayne is in his 60s and has been around for 30 years and has an old school mentality and doesn’t understand how marketing in 2020 works,” Heller explained. “It would be so helpful to have a younger person helping him with this.”

Heller came up with a plan, which he shared to his Instagram on September 8. He called for universities to give their students assignments where they use their skillset — whether it be in e-commerce, photography or marketing — to help local businesses in their neighborhood and community.

“Food for thought, pls steal this idea,” he concluded in the caption.

Until someone “steals” Heller’s idea, he’s continuing his push to protect longstanding local New York spots.

“I’m driving myself a little crazy with it, there’s only so much I can do and there’s just thousands and thousands of businesses and I can’t help all of them,” he said. “But it’s made me realize that I can help make a big impact on a lot of these small businesses.”

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You can follow Heller on Instagram here to help spread awareness.

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