ONCE UPON A TIME, IN 1832, THE WOMEN’S EXCHANGE movement began in Philadelphia to offer a way for women to help take care of their families after a financial downturn by selling handmade goods. The women were identified only by number, to keep the family’s potentially embarrassing secret — such as a husband’s job loss — hidden from the community. In 1854, Heights women founded the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange on Montague Street.
Today, the exchange is the oldest continuously-operating exchange among the 25 remaining members of the Federation of Women’s Exchanges in America, and carries with it a lot of history. The women made “warm garments” for soldiers in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War I, and made by hand a commemorative flag following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. According to the store’s web site, this flag is now part of the collection of the Brooklyn Historical Society.
If a curious shopper visits the Exchange’s current home on Pierrepont Street, he or she might learn that not only do about 300 consignment artists sell their handicrafts in the shop, but just half are from Brooklyn, as the shop’s popularity has spread throughout New England. Several of those artists are now men, although the 40-volunteer team that runs the shop is made up of all women. Manager KATE ROCK, the store’s only “employee,” lives in Cobble Hill.
In keeping with tradition, consignors are still identified by number only, and now can be said to fall into one of four categories: age 65 or older, physically challenged, fiscally challenged or furthering the American handcraft tradition. Often, says ROBERTA SMITH, a Heights resident and event chair at the Exchange, artists fall into more than one category.
“They really are carrying the tradition,” said Smith. “We have artists in their twenties through their nineties.”
About half of the items for sale are handmade. The other half, the direct purchase merchandise, is carefully chosen to round out the shop but not compete with goods sold by consignors.
Following the recent annual open house — at which holiday merchandise was unveiled — trunk shows will be held in the store each Thursday until Dec. 18. At those events, artists will present, exhibit and sign their creations.
On Dec. 4, jewelry designer LISA DETWILER, also a senior associate broker with Corcoran on Montague, will present her collection of jewelry with semi precious stones, and author and illustrator MELANIE HOPE GREENBERG will sign her newest children’s book Mermaids on Parade. Greenberg’s art career began in 1981, when UNICEF chose her illustrations for their greeting cards.
On Dec. 11, wood toy crafter BENJAMIN PARNES will exhibit his hand-painted wooden trains, planes and trucks. SIMONE KAPLAN, who lives next to the store with her Brooklyn Heights-born husband and sons, will display her unique fabric dolls. This will be a special day in that Parnes, at 93, is one of the shop’s oldest artists, and Kaplan, at 33, is currently one of the youngest.
Additional goodies that can be found at Brooklyn Women’s Exchange include handmade infant and children’s clothing, quilts, pillows, purses, tree skirts, soaps, blown-glass ornaments, greeting cards, candles, ceramics and Brooklyn-related books, clothes and art.
Said LOUANNA CARLIN, a part-time volunteer and Heights resident, “It’s very expensive to be a volunteer here!”
For more information and hours, visit www.brooklyn-womens-exchange.org.