Crafts, Community Under One Roof

The bustle of the Old Town Hall Exchange comes as somewhat of a surprise since it's a foggy Monday morning in this bucolic village 15 miles west of Boston.

Shoppers browse, artisans and bakers whisk in to drop off their wares and goodies, and the saleswomen are all vivacious volunteers eager to help.

But it is the week before Christmas. And the post office happens to be next door. And this is a women's exchange, filled with unique items you can't find just anywhere.

Yes, they have penny candy and homemade baked goods that would have been sold when this was a country store. But Christmas ornaments fill a tree, hand-sewn children's and dolls' clothes are at every turn, and one-of-a-kind crafts, books, dolls, stuffed animals, note cards, Christmas tree skirts, and more make this store a visual feast. And there isn't a cash register in sight. Costs are calculated with pencil and paper, and change comes from a lockbox.

Just what is a women's exchange? It's a nonprofit consignment shop that serves as an outlet for craftspeople, many of whom derive their income from their handiwork.

"Grandma Moses was discovered at a women's exchange," notes Betsy Peavy, a longtime volunteer here.

With the motto "Helping others help themselves," some 30 women's exchanges dot the country, with the majority of them in the East. Lincoln's Old Town Hall Exchange is one of the smaller exchanges, with about 120 consignors from all over the country.

Christmastime means big business for these operations. "We have a lot of very home-oriented gift items," explains Anne Owen, president of the Federation of Woman's Exchanges. "We're retail, after all, that's the time of year you make your money," says Ms. Owen, who hails from the Scarsdale (New York) Woman's Exchange.

The first women's exchange was founded in 1832, when well-to-do ladies in Philadelphia set up a charitable consignment shop to sell the handiwork of women in need. While the Philadelphia exchange is no longer in existence, the Brooklyn (New York) Women's Exchange is the oldest in operation, since 1854, and business there is still good.

"We find that if there's a bad retail year in Manhattan, we have a good year," says Roberta Smith, president of the Brooklyn exchange. "For some of our consignors this is their only source of income," she points out. "The exchange gives a sense of self-worth for elderly and handicap consignors as well."

The women's exchange "movement" is often referred to as the oldest continually operating charitable movement in the United States. According to one estimate, women's exchanges grossed $6 million nationwide last year.

Every year, the federation holds an annual meeting where volunteers bring in examples of their bestsellers. Year after year, however, handmade clothes - especially children's clothes - as well as blankets are the biggest sellers. "They're 40 percent of our business," says Peggy Boyer of the Old Town Hall Exchange.

One of the main concerns of almost all the exchanges is the shrinking volunteer pool. At a time when many women are working, both by choice and necessity, volunteers are extremely hard to come by. "We just hang on," says Owen of the National Federation of Exchanges. Here in Lincoln, most volunteers are older. Efforts to attract young workers have been fruitless.

The reasons these women say they stay with the exchange are manifold: First and foremost, they enjoy it. Sociability is high. "You meet a lot of people you otherwise might not meet," says Dot Taylor, volunteer coordinator here.

Also, they believe in helping artisans.

There's Lawrence Talbot, who estimates he has made 100 dollhouses for the exchange over the years. Eleanor Farley has been delivering baked goods such as today's stollen for the past 16 years.

"What's nice here is that 80 percent goes back to the consignors," says Ms. Peavy. While the shops' commissions vary, Old Town Hall and the Chagrin Valley (Ohio) Women's Exchanges are known to have the lowest. Sometimes consignors are so successful at the exchange level, they end up moving on to open their own business.

Folks come from all over town for Tom Szekely's cookies, which he's been baking for the exchange for almost three years. "The people who work here are really supportive," he says, as he drops off his daily batch. "It's great market research to see what sells."

"What's wonderful is the women who volunteer here are so fun, a real patchwork of personalities," says Vandy Savage, who helped design the exchange's recent renovation. "I'm such a pro-art person and [I shop here because] the exchange supports artisans and craftspeople."

Liz Brahn is an artisan from Maynard, Mass., who makes Eco Art (colorful bowls and animals made from "used" materials). For the craftsperson, she says, looking to the volunteers here, working through exchanges makes sense: "You don't take a big commission, you don't give a lot of guff, and you get us into other places [exchanges]."

Even as Ms. Brahn is unpacking her works, visitors look on with interest.

There's one downside to frequenting exchanges, as Ms. Savage illustrates: "I keep coming in and shopping - and the thing I saw the other day is gone!"

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