Elder craftspeople sharpen skills, market goods

The shop is on Lexington Avenue, not Fifth. It lacks designer names -- to say nothing of a smart-New York-boutique name for itself. And yet for 25 years, as of next month, customers like Eleanor Roosevelt, Gloria Vanderbilt, Dustin Hoffman, and Angela Lansbury have brought their trade to the Elder Craftsmen Shop.

The shop was founded on a tiny budget ($15,000) and a rather grand ideal, unheard of at the time: "To educate and encourage older people to the constructive and creative use of their leisure time, and to afford them, on a nonprofit basis, an outlet for sales of articles made by them, and to advise, help improve skills, and provide individual training."

Today more than 600 consignors from 34 states -- 90 percent of them women -- sell their work through the Elder Craftsmen Shop. Last year the shop grossed $ 133,440 from knit goods, crocheting, weaving, needlepoint, quilting, woodwork, macrame, holiday decorations, toys, pottery, children's clothes, leather, and decoupage.

All products must meet the standards of quality and design set by the shop's selection committee. Once a product has been accepted, the price is fixed by agreement between the committee and the consignor, who will receive a 65 percent share. Since 1958 an annual catalog has enhanced sales.

But the Elder Craftsmen Shop is more than a convenient retail oulet for workers like the crafter of baby toys who wrote recently: "If I could only tell you how much the money that you sent has meant to me! I would never have been able to sell so many without your help." The shop has also become an active force in training new craftsmen and reviving old crafts.

At its Controlled Production Unit on East 65th Street, novices receive basic training with patterns and materials in kit form, making by hand a number of the simpler items for the shop. Senior craftsmen who participate in this operation get 50 percent of the sale price of what they make, since the work is less original and materials are furnished.

For the past seven years free classes in such skills as ceramics, silk screening, picture framing, leatherworking, and needlecraft have been given to representatives of the city's agencies serving older people. They, in turn, teach these skills, and so the craft traditions fan out and stay alive. Many of these newly inspired craftsmen never sell through the popular shop in Manhattan, but they do experience the joy of accomplishment and of increasing their sense of competence and creativity.

Each year the Elder Craftsmen Shop finds new items on its shelves, testifying to the healthy state of handicrafts in the Age of Automation. Last year, for the first time, the shop sold braided and rag rugs, theorems (a traditional American craft of stenciling and painting pictures on velvet), and pierced lampshades.

The Elder Craftsmen Shop -- unique 25 years ago -- has served as a model for others around the country. In 1960, for instance, San Diego Community Council opened its own Senior Craft Shop and its own nonprofit organization called Senior Activities Inc. Organizations in Philadelphia; Washington; Wilmington, Del.; Flemington, N.J.; Chicago; and San Francisco have also taken inspiration from the New York project. In Boston, Project Homespun operates from a cart in the city's popular Quincy market. Groups abroad include two boutiques in Monaco that sell only the work of elder craftsmen.

The New York shop has a paid staff of 13, including executive director Barbara Stires, dozens of volunteers, and an active 50-member board of directors headed by president Helen T. Warner. Miss Warner has worked with the organization since it grew out of the annual Hobby Show for Older Persons, which began in 1947.

Since 1977, a professional fund raiser has helped elicit support from corporations, foundations, and private individuals for the expanding work of the Elder Craftsmen organization. So far, city and state government agencies and foundations have given the largest percentage of financial support.

Mrs. Stires and Miss Warner both anticipate further growth in the '80s as the population of those over 60 rises, along with the determination that they lead fruitful lives beyond the age of retirement.

Traditional crafts and active seniors: By a particularly happy combination the Elder Craftsmen Shop happened on these popular concerns of the '80s a quarter of a century before its time.

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