19th Century Brooklyn Women’s Exchange to return to its Montague Street roots
"A tremendous plus for the street"
The Brooklyn Women’s Exchange, which sells handmade craft items on consignment, has signed a lease for the downstairs storefront at 137 Montague St. The not-for-profit is currently located at 55 Pierrepont St., in a building owned by Catholic Charities, which wants the space for its own purposes.
The 168-year-old volunteer-run Women’s Exchange has a unique place in the history of Brooklyn Heights, yet found itself facing the possibility of being priced out of the neighborhood’s shopping areas. At the same time, Montague Street had been steadily losing many of the businesses that attracted shoppers to the street. By 2020, in the midst of the COVID outbreak, one fifth of the storefronts on Montague Street were empty.
It was the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) that brought the two together.
The Women’s Exchange’s new space, tucked under a UPS store, is owned by Thomas and Chris Calfa, owners of the Lassen & Hennigs deli on Montague Street. (The site was formerly occupied by a dry cleaner.)
Lassen & Hennigs deli has been operated by the same family on Montague Street since 1949. The Calfa brothers knew they wanted an organization like the Women’s Exchange and — unlike other landlords on the street — were willing to meet the group halfway to get them there.
The organization had been working since 2019 to find a suitable location, Women’s Exchange’s President Ann Aurigemma said. “We had been searching and we reached out to numerous people in the community,” said “A lot of our customers had leads that we tried to follow. Unfortunately, they didn’t work out.”
BHA’s former president Erika Belsey Worth told the Brooklyn Eagle that when she was speaking with Thomas Calfa about possible retailers for their space, Calfa told her, “What I really want is the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange.”
“I went to Lassen & Hennigs early one morning, on behalf of the BHA, to ask if I could see the space under the UPS which I knew was theirs. I was scouting locations for a children’s book store,” she said. “When Tom and I were discussing the space, he just said outright that his preference was for the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange — because they are such a part of the community. I was so excited I called a friend at the Women’s Exchange immediately from the street.”
“We met with the Calfa brothers and we started talking, and it came to be,” Aurigemma said. “From the very start Chris and Thomas have been the most reasonable and they listened and they tried to help.”
“I think this is a tremendous plus for the street,” Thomas Calfa told the Eagle. “This business is tremendous. As I said to everybody who asked me what’s going in there, ‘I can tell you, every merchant, everybody who lives in Brooklyn Heights, will be happy.’ And it’s true, every person. It checks all the boxes.”
He added, “We had other offers for more money. There was a nail salon that was offering us more.”
The site had been empty about a year-and-a-half, said Chris Calfa.
“What was so lovely about this ‘deal’ was how neighborly it was — a coming-together of three of the anchors of Brooklyn Heights,” Belsey Worth told the Eagle.
The Calfas have carried out extensive renovation on the interior and the Women’s Exchange will be putting in a new floor, ceiling and other details, Aurigemma said. She said she was thrilled with the exposed brick walls of the shop and other touches. “The front steps are going to be bluestone,” she said. Half of the wide front step section will be cut out to become an open area, perhaps for stroller parking.
Though it’s not in the lease, “Chris and Thomas will be letting us use the garden in the back as well,” she said.
The selling-floor space at the new location is a little over 1,000 sq. ft. and the downstairs office and storage areas are about 500 sq. ft. “The current space is larger but the new space is very workable,” Aurigemma said.
The Women’s Exchange has a five-year lease with an option for another five years.
Win-win for the neighborhood
BHA has spent the last several years trying to attract more businesses to Montague Street. They recently succeeded in matchmaking the popular French bakery L’Appartement 4F to its new address at 115 Montague St. (The bakery was mobbed at its recent ribbon-cutting.)
In a survey carried out by BHA in 2020, some of the items on the list most requested by respondents were gift shops, and stores selling toys and children’s items.
The Women’s Exchange fills the bill. It specializes in adorable hand-knit items including baby blankets and quilts, hand-decorated children’s clothing, jewelry, holiday items, linens, books, toys and more.
The current shop will remain open on Pierrepont Street throughout the summer, and then reopen in the new space with a ribbon cutting ceremony in September.
Kate Chura, executive director, Montague Street Business Improvement District, said the organization was excited to welcome Women’s Exchange back to Montague Street. “We look forward to their grand opening this fall, and to the unique crafts and gifts they’ll offer Montague Street shoppers.”
A part of Brooklyn Heights history
The Women’s Exchange has occupied two other spaces on Montague Street over the past 168 years, Aurigemma said. Old-timers may recall when it was located at 76 Montague St. in the 1960s. The organization was also once located at 93 Court St., when it was called the Brooklyn Female Employment Society.
When the Women’s Exchange was founded, women needing to earn a living were limited to the “gentle art of needlework” or cooking items like breads, cookies, candies and jellies. Mrs. William S. Packer, founder of Packer Collegiate Institute, was one of the original members of the board of managers. Plymouth Church’s Henry Ward Beecher bought “course garments” made by the women to be given out to the poor. It remains the oldest continuously operating Women’s Exchange in the country, and has a staff of roughly 40 volunteers who work rotating 4-hour shifts.
Renee Dunn has been volunteering at the Women’s Exchange since 2006. She told the Eagle about some of the changes she has seen since she started there.
“When I started to work, they just got a computer. They used to do everything by hand,” she said. “Also, the volunteers are much more diverse today. When I started, most of the people were from the Heights Casino and the children went to Packer. Many still do because that’s how they know about it, but it has gotten much more diverse.”
The shop supports more than 300 artisans, with 70 cents of every dollar going back to the creators. While the majority are women, a number are also men nowadays.
“We have Dennis Taylor who is a carver — did you see those teddy bears? And we have Tony Okerson, he does the alphabet name trains. We also have a male knitter,” Aurigemma said.
Shop manager, Elizabeth Betteil, is the only paid employee. She has been working at the store since 2010.
“This is the best job I ever had,” she said. “I come in here every day and look what I’m surrounded by! When customers come in here they start to look around and their eyes just light up.”
The most popular items that people buy are the wooden name trains carved by retired Air Force veteran Tony Okerson, she said. “People just love these.”
“The other things that our top sellers are Knudsen’s caramels. There are volunteers who get upset if we don’t have any,” Betteil said. “And chocolate from Betsy’s Buns — she’s in Bay Ridge and she makes the best chocolate.”