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
My girls still love the shop. Maxine plays with the train set in the front and Josie sits on the floor and reads the middle-grade novels for sale in the back. They both love having shopping assignments (rain boots! shorts for camp!) and both have inherited my disdain for paying retail. “My kids think shopping is looking for treasures,” concurs my friend and fellow Jane’s devotee Amy Miceli. The shop makes the hunt that much more thrilling by not separating boys’ and girls’ clothing; in an increasingly gender-divided world, it’s nice to shop somewhere that doesn’t insist that certain colors and cuts and items are only for one gender or the other. But this is what happens when crunchy do-gooders with no retail experience start a store in a funky neighborhood—something they probably couldn’t do today.
Alas, nothing stays the same. This neighborhood was once part of the infamous Lower East Side—the terms East Village and Alphabet City are of relatively recent vintage. This is where Jewish immigrants came a century ago, stuffed into tenements, selling out of pushcarts, sleeping on tarry rooftops in the summer. Skinny synagogues crowded the streets; Yiddish theaters flourished along 2nd Avenue. This is where I started to come in the early 1990s, listening to performance poetry at the Nuyorican Poets Café and music at Sin-é, sipping lattes out of giant bowls at Limbo, eating challah toast at Polonia. By then, gentrification was already under way, but it was still a gritty neighborhood, full of immigrants, queers, junkies, radicals, squatters, Hell’s Angels, Ukrainian ladies in clunky shoes, the old Second Avenue Deli (where I nibbled on a “twin double,” weeping before heading to St. Vincent’s to be induced … and then a day later, snarfed down the remaining bulkie roll and a half while holding newborn Josie). Now, gentrification is in full flower: lounges serving $14 cocktails, buzzword-bingo-playing boites (artisinal! small-batch! house-made! free-range!), boutique hotels, luxury high-rises, and someday, maybe even a new subway line.
Time marches on—quickly. The East Village is nothing like it was, though it never is. Today, if I’m out on the street on a Saturday night, which I try not to be, I feel like an escapee from Logan’s Run. “This neighborhood used to be pretty grungy,” Raskin said. “But I sort of wish it could have stopped gentrifying about 10 years ago. People used to be depressed by the junkies, but I’m more depressed by all the shrieking girls in towering heels looking like they’re going to topple over. My children love this city, but I can’t imagine them living here as adults. That’s disheartening. The city was much more open to possibility years ago.”
Today, I hear more parents complaining that there’s too much Old Navy at Jane’s Exchange; they don’t want to spend $5 for something they could get for $10 brand-new. These people aren’t into lingering, picking though the racks for chichi Fronch ski pants or grandma-knit handmade sweaters. Yes, there is a lot of Old Navy. But once I got these bizarro stretchy thick-knit blue hotpants from Japan with white sad-eyed baby seals all over them. Pants like that don’t throw themselves at you, waiting to be clubbed over the head. You have to hunt. But now there are several upscale children’s resale shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn; yuppie moms go there, if they do resale at all.
Maybe that’s just how it is. My kids will, God willing, keep growing. We parents can be nostalgic or bitter; we can do our darnedest to make our neighborhood a place we want to live and our kids the kind of people we want to know, but life doesn’t always go the way we predict. Change is constant. Sometimes it’s amazing, and sometimes it’s not.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
With an American flag in her hand, my immigrant grandmother stood up to a gang of Texas roughnecks