Historic Brooklyn Women’s Exchange celebrates return to Montague Street
A unique part of Brooklyn Heights for 168 years
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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