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.)
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.
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