Brooklyn Heights

Historic Brooklyn Women’s Exchange celebrates return to Montague Street

A unique part of Brooklyn Heights for 168 years

November 4, 2022 Mary Frost
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BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — With flowers, a ribbon cutting and a toast, the 168-year-old Brooklyn Women’s Exchange on Thursday officially opened its new shop at 137 Montague St. in Brooklyn Heights — just in time for Christmas shopping. 

“It’s a very Kumbaya moment,” President Ann Aurigemma said before the ceremony.

The Women’s Exchange, which sells handmade craft items, has a unique place in the history of the Heights. It is the oldest operating Women’s Exchange in the country. Generations of local women have volunteered there, and no fewer than eight past presidents were on hand for the ribbon cutting. 

Recalling a history that stretches back to the Civil War, Aurigemma said, “We have never lost sight of our purpose and mission in all that time, which is to promote hand crafts in the United States and support the artisans and crafters that make them.”

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The organization’s new space, tucked under a UPS store, is owned by Thomas and Chris Calfa, who also own the Lassen & Hennigs deli on Montague Street. The Calfa brothers knew they wanted an organization like the Women’s Exchange and were willing to meet the group halfway to get them there, Aurigemma said. 

From left to right Sadie Horton and Anne Donovan. Both are past BWE Presidents and current volunteers. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller

“Thomas knew before we knew that we needed to be on Montague Street, but the remarkable thing is that he and his brother Chris worked with us to make this happen,” she told the crowd. 

The Calfas had turned down renters who offered them more money for the spot.

“When I was talking to Erika [Belsey Worth] from the Brooklyn Heights Association, she suggested a couple things and I was like, ‘No, I really want the Woman’s Exchange,’” Calfa said. “And she said, ‘Oh, I’ll make that call.’ 

“From there we just started going,” he said, snapping his fingers. “And it worked out really nicely.” 

Calfa said he told people on the street this past summer, “’Yes, we got our renter and everybody’s going to be happy.’ And everyone is happy. So I think this is going to be the start of something great.”

The Women’s Exchange had been working since 2019 to find a suitable and affordable location after the shop lost its lease at at 55 Pierrepont St., where it had been located for four decades. Its landlord there, Catholic Charities, wants the site for its own purposes.

A Bay Ridge native, Betsy Baudille is the BWE’s exclusive chocolatier. Her salted caramels are in high demand. She also provides one of a kind, hand-sewn tote bags. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller

Working together to make it happen

City Councilmember Lincoln Restler, a Heights resident, said his sister had volunteered at the Women’s Exchange when she was a high school student. 

“When we got word from Catholic Charities about their desire to take back the space from the Woman’s Exchange, I was really freaked out,” he said. “Because rents on Montague Street are so high and it is so hard to find an affordable commercial space in our neighborhood. But of course, Thomas Calfa, who is as integral a part of our neighborhood as the Woman’s Exchange is, figured out a way to make it work.”  

Koren Volk, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, said that BHA has been working with the Montague Street BID for several years to revitalize Montague Street.

“Around the same time we all freaked out, as Lincoln said, when we heard that the Woman’s Exchange was going to need a new home,” Volk said. “The entire neighborhood — I kid you not, it didn’t matter who we spoke to — everyone wanted to find a new home for the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange in Brooklyn Heights.”

Volunteer Joanne Mack helps Marissa Alperin with her purchase. Joanne’s gentle touch of Marissa’s hand was one of many subtle indicators of the sense of community cultivated by the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller

Volk thanked the Calfa brothers, “Who reached out and made it possible for this uniquely local store to open here in this new location.”

Katriona Kearney, a former president of the Women’s Exchange, presented flowers to Aurigemma, saying, “Without your vision, your fortitude and your determination, we never could have made this happen.”

“You’ve totally knock me off of my shoes,” Aurigemma said, briefly tearing up. “I’m humbled and honored to do this for us, for our our artisans and our crafters.  Now we’re just going to cut the ribbon and party like anything.”

From left to right BWE Shop Manager Elizabeth Betteil and Reeves Carter. Mr. Carter is married to BWE Board Member Karla Olivier both of whom are attorneys. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller

Putting the jigsaw puzzle together

As visitors oohed and ahhed over the shop’s handmade clothing, baby goods, toys and jewelry, volunteer Kristin Becker, who served as project manager for the construction, told the Brooklyn Eagle  that it took the organization about six weeks to convert the space and move in, working with contractor Bobby Cruz of Best Contracting. 

The new space is smaller than the Pierrepont Street location, so decisions had to be made, Becker said. “I drafted a hand-drawn plan that incorporated a lot of our old fixtures from 55 Pierrepont into this space. It was a really fun jigsaw puzzle to figure out how to fit these pieces.” 

The Women’s Exchange has occupied two other spaces on Montague Street over the past 168 years. One of them was at 76 Montague St., the current site of the Cat Cafe. The organization was also once located at 93 Court St., when it was called the Brooklyn Female Employment Society.  Some pieces in the new shop had been in the original 76 Montague St. location, Becker said.

Volunteer Jillian Woods shows fellow volunteers photos of her six-month-old daughter, much to everyone’s delight. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller

She pointer out a shelving unit in the very front of the shop that formerly had dolls displayed on it. “A lot of things were designed around this piece … It just screams Women’s Exchange.”

Becker, a former Women’s Exchange president who has volunteered with the group for 17 years, added, “I’m proud to say every other president since me is still a volunteer in the Exchange, and it’s one of the reasons that we are so strong right now … So we have this incredible institutional knowledge and memory that is gathered, and these are such dedicated people.”

“I think the new location is terrific. Being on Montague Street will be really good for us,” said volunteer Alexandra Bowie, a former president of the Brooklyn Heights Association. “It smaller, but that has made for some important discussions.”

Former Brooklyn Women’s Exchange presidents in attendance at the event were: Kristin Becker; Therese Bernbach; Dottie Brooke; Anne Donovan; Sadie Horton; Katriona Kearney; Joanne Mack and Barbara Wilding.

This display features Made in Brooklyn and Brooklyn-centric gift items such as hand-thrown ceramics, honey, and maple syrup. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
From left to right Past President Dottie Brook and friend of BWE Vicky Shippers. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Volunteers Joanne Mack (left) and Christina Gonzalez (right). Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
From left to right City Councilmember Lincoln Restler, Gloria Rosado, and Marissa Alperin. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Celebratory bubbly. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
From left to right Volunteer, Renee Dunn and former BWE President Kristen Becker. Ms. Becker spearheaded the construction of the new rental space. A long-time volunteer, Ms. Dunn baked delicious, homemade cheese puffs for the event. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
The Brooklyn Women’s Exchange, founded in 1854, is a not-for-profit, volunteer-run craft and gift shop, supporting independent craftspeople from Brooklyn and beyond. Hand-knitted sweaters are just some of the items available at the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Volunteer Jillian Woods peruses the hand-made Christmas Ornaments at the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange’s ribbon-cutting ceremony celebration. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Thomas Calfa is the Owner and Operator of Lassen and Hennings. His family also owns 137 Montague Stree which houses the UPS Store. Mr. Calfa was instrumental in facilitating the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange’s new rental space. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
From left to right Martha Foley and Claude Scales. Claude is the editor of the Brooklyn Heights Blog. The couple are long-time Brooklyn Heights residents. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Helle
Executive board members and volunteers were all smiles at the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange as President Ann Aurigemma cut the ribbon. From left to right Karla Olivier, Lisa Lambert, Lincoln Restler, Kristen Becker, and others. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Brooklyn Heights Association President Karen Volk addresses the crowd. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
City Council Member Lincoln Restler (left) and BWE President Ann Aurigemma (right). Mr. Restler grew up in Brooklyn Heights. Here he shares his fondness of his many childhood memories of visiting the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Brooklyn Women’s Exchange President Ann Aurigemma beams with pride. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Celebratory bubbly. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller

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