Childhood Memories for Resale
A thrift shop in New York’s East Village holds the story of my kids’ early years, and of a changed neighborhood
I stumbled across Jane’s Exchange—a children’s clothing consignment shop—back in 2001, when Josie was just a couple of weeks old and I roamed my neighborhood in a state of hallucinatory new-mom exhaustion. Much more than a place to buy clothes, the shop rapidly became a social hub for me, as it did for so many East Villagers.
Yes, you could buy a hand-me-down onesie with Aladdin Sane on it for $4, or find a pair of pink Zutano overalls for $5—and another mom would show you how those overalls ran short in the rise (but the Zutano pull-on pants didn’t); it was like having your own pierced, tattooed personal shopper. But even better, you could use the bathroom without feeling like a supplicant, read a zine (The East Village Inky), and breastfeed in the comfy rocker when you were just learning how to breastfeed and it was stressful and you needed a quiet little spot. Kids played with the little wooden kitchen set, hand-carved by some other East Village parent, while parents shopped and listened to the perpetually on radio; at first it was tuned to NPR, then Air America, then NPR again. Thanks to the huge community bulletin board, you could find a lactation consultant or a caesarian-birth healing circle.
I’ve measured out my kids’ lives by the area of the store I browsed in. At first I shopped the newborn rack at the front, then moved a bit further in to the 3-6 month rack, then further still to 6-12, then 12-24, then I was in the middle of the store with the 3Ts, the 4Ts. Now I’m shopping in the size 7-10 rack in the back, the least-crowded rack, the last rack before I’m out of the store entirely. I’ve bought items there for girl #1, re-consigned them after girl #2 outgrew them, then smiled to see other, younger parents examining “our” items on the racks. It was a repository of our history.
A lot has changed since 2001. The store lost its lease and moved further east. The East Village has changed, with Starbucks and 7-Eleven replacing mom-and-pop hardware stores and bodegas, with huge dorms full of shrieking NYU students replacing tenements of elderly Jews and Polish immigrants. My family has changed, too: My kids are no longer wee meatloafs to be dressed in whatever I please. They’re now actual people with distinctive fashion tastes. (Josie dresses like a punky tomboy; Maxie like an optimistic homeless person, in as many clashing, bright cotton layers as humanly possible.) But we’re at the last rack. Soon enough, the store will become a piece of our memory—of the girls’ childhood that’s coming to an end, and the crazy neighborhood that’s no longer what it was.
Eva Dorsey was teaching theater at Hunter College when she decided to open the store in 1994, at 7th Street and Avenue B. “I found myself, shockingly, pregnant,” she said. “I’d tried for 20 years and it wasn’t happening, but here I was as a single parent, and I wanted to be around as much as possible for this child. So, I thought, what could I do? And I started the store.” She named it after her daughter, Jane (and Jane Austen, an author she loved, and Jane Street, where she was born). Soon after the store opened, Dorsey took on Gayle Raskin as a co-owner. “Gayle was a customer,” Dorsey recalled, “and she was always so laid-back, and I thought, ‘She’d be a great business partner.’ ”
“I was a social worker,” Raskin told me last week, “and I ran rape-crisis programs at [the now-defunct] St .Vincent’s and at a Queens hospital, and it was a little heavy and dark, though I loved it. But especially since my two oldest are girls, it was very hard, and I didn’t want to be constantly having to explain to them why I was running off and why I carried a beeper.”
After seven years, the store lost its lease, then moved to 13th Street and Avenue A—where I first found it in 2001—and lost its lease a second time in 2005, a victim (again) of rising rents in the East Village and Lower East Side. It took six months for Dorsey and Raskin to find their third space in the neighborhood, a decrepit former hair salon on 3rd Street and Avenue B. A local mom volunteered her husband to do the electrical work; other parents helped paint the store and build the website. The Hotel Gansevoort, one of the new swanky downtown hotels, donated 12 hand-me-down purple lounge chairs. I took Josie and baby Maxine to the opening party. The store was still appealingly ramshackle; the battered wooden kitchen set was still there.
To a degree, anyone who loves thrift stores thrives on unpredictability. You never know what you’ll find. You have to be ready for some stains, some smells, but there’s always the possibility of uncovering an amazing, undervalued jewel. How much more true is that of a kiddie thrift store in the East Village—a neighborhood that’s always been synonymous with creativity and change and skank; a shop where a zillion constituencies buy and consign and mingle. “We’ve always had people from the projects, East Village artists, visitors from out of town, grandparents,” said Raskin.
In addition to cute clothes, fabulous hair clips, and a 1960s book of Torah stories in Hebrew and English with totally mod illustrations and design, one of the best purchases I ever made at Jane’s Exchange was the travel carrot. It’s a quilted orange gingham carrot, filled with purple and orange stuffed bunnies of various sizes, some of them holding tiny stuffed carrots. Both girls came up with endless dramas to be enacted among the bunny populace. A bunny might push another and get a time-out in the carrot; it was all very fraught and thrilling. I only let the girls use the carrot on airplanes, so it was a sacred, special carrot. I have been unable to bring myself to hand it down to either my now-in-kindergarten niece or my toddler nephew.
Once, when Josie was tiny, a classmate of Dorsey’s daughter Jane came into the store—without Jane. She talked to Dorsey about a science project she was working on, all bright-eyed and animated and proud of her work. I watched her, thinking, “This is why we raise kids here.” She was probably in 6th grade, traversing the neighborhood on her own, confident but not bratty, brimming with intellectual curiosity. It seemed impossible that Josie would ever be that old. But next year, she starts at the same middle school Jane and her friend attended. (Jane, the newborn who gave the store its name, is now 19; Raskin’s daughter Hana is 21, her daughter Kyla is 20, and her son Che is 16.)
With an American flag in her hand, my immigrant grandmother stood up to a gang of Texas roughnecks