Nestled on the corner of Magazine and Arabella Street resides a New Orleanian’s fantasyland: Alligator Eyes. Dreamt up by Elizabeth Ray, the store is a sanctuary of sparkles and rhinestones, encompassing what it means to wholeheartedly embrace living in the whimsical city of New Orleans.
Though Elizabeth has now fulfilled her vision of opening a storefront, her career was not always so gratifying. For 12 years, Elizabeth worked as a wedding photographer. She eventually took a risk and gave up photography to pursue a career within retail, following her intuition that she was meant for a more creative field involving “earrings, crystals, and jewelry.”
Expanding on the risk she took, she told me, “I had this period of two years where I was kind of just free falling because I went from having this full career as a wedding photographer to deciding ‘I’m going to be an artist.’”
Though this career-switch was destabilizing, it gave Elizabeth time to throw herself into her true passions, while also sharpening her entrepreneurial edge. For years, Elizabeth continued to work in retail under other store owners, though she knew she had her own unique vision, and “…when you work for people, it’s their vision.”
In 2020, Elizabeth’s moment to stand out on her own finally came when she found the ideal store space. She took a risk, signed a lease on the spot, and officially became a business owner in June 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though she admits it wasn’t the ideal time to open a business, the character of her store proved to be a silver lining during a particularly dark time.
“We needed joy,” Elizabeth remarked. “It got me through COVID because it was just so depressing and boring, so making videos and sunglasses was fun.”
Inside the store, you can find anything from her flamboyant, handmade sunglasses, funky earrings, and other differently bedazzled, Mardi Gras-themed knick-knacks. Alligator Eyes continued to operate both in-person and online throughout the pandemic, which proved to be the perfect time for Elizabeth to engage with her customers via Instagram. She began posting funny, random videos she would create within her store (also doubling as her art studio) to brighten up people’s Instagram feeds, while unintentionally marketing her company.
Elizabeth explained further, “I don’t advertise at all. The way that I see it, is that when you’re in what you want to do, people are just magnetic to it. The right people find it and love it because I’m trying to be real and genuine.”
Elizabeth’s authenticity spreads throughout every aspect of her business, and is especially evident in the way she interacts with her customers, treating them as if they were old friends. As Elizabeth and I sat outside her store chatting, she continued to allow customers to roam inside, calling to them, “I’m just hanging outside. If you need me, holla!” Elizabeth’s easy-going disposition and spirited personality creates an environment in which the customer experience is primarily about having fun and appreciating the vibrancy of the store. Customers are encouraged to unleash their most playful self and try on sunglasses, snap selfies with their friends, and admire the endless options of jewelry for however long they want.
“This will never be something that’s heavy, and I think that’s why I’ve been able to be successful because even when it’s slow, I’m still able to have fun,” Elizabeth expressed.
For her, Alligator Eyes is more than a store; it’s a dream come to life.
After Elizabeth and I wrapped up our conversation, I wandered around Alligator Eyes and felt an infectious feeling of exuberance wash over me (the store really is just one huge sparkle). I peered around with wide eyes and picked up a pair of silver star earrings with silver tinsel-like fringe dangling from the bottom. “Take them! Free of charge,” Elizabeth asserted. I smiled and accepted her gift, knowing we had both just made each other’s day.
I walked out of our interview, sparkling star earrings in hand, recognizing that Alligator Eyes isn’t just a store…it’s an ethos. It’s a reminder to embrace everything you love in life, never take yourself too seriously, and above all, pursue your dreams no matter what.
“Everybody’s got something like this inside of them,” Elizabeth chimed. “Everybody’s drawn to something that they want to do. Go for it because it just expands. It will happen if you stay in it, and line up with your heart.”
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