In the East Village, Proof that it Takes a VillageCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | The duo behind East Village Vintage Collective relied on their neighbors to make it through the worst of the pandemic. Published: October 05, 2021
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This week’s feature came about in an exceptionally sweet way, so I’ll begin there. Last month, I reached out to Bonnie Slotnick of Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, the cherished vintage cookbook purveyor at the bottom of a staircase in the East Village. When Bonnie got back to me, she declined an interview but graciously suggested that I instead profile one of her “especially deserving” neighbors: East Village Vintage Collective. I’d never been to the vintage shop before, but I knew that if someone was willing to forgo coverage of their own business on behalf of it, it must be special.
Surprise, surprise: it is. When I recently visited the shop for an interview with co-manager Alex Carpenter, I immediately got why Bonnie did what she did. Alex and Maegan Hayward, the owner and co-manager, have endured the pandemic by collaborating with local artists on community-building projects and strengthening their ties with other indie businesses in the neighborhood. Now, after six years of sourcing vintage clothing, toys, home goods, and records for discerning downtown denizens, the pair — who are partners in life and work — are learning how to make room for rest and creative experimentation outside of their beloved storefront. Keep reading for my conversation with Alex.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did East Village Vintage Collective come to be?
Maegan had always wanted to do vintage, and in 2012 or 2013, just before I met her, she started doing online sales. We kept all of her stock under the bed in airtight bags, so every time she'd make a sale, we'd have to pull all of the bags out; inevitably, it was always the last item in the last bag that sold. It was a bit of a challenge. We were living up here [in the apartment above the storefront], and we both had full-time jobs. We started doing markets: Bust Magazine’s craft fair, the Hester Street Fair, Artists & Fleas. Through those markets, we met people who were in a similar situation: they wanted to sell, but didn't want to schlep their stuff every weekend to a different market, or have to man their booth every time. We ended up with four people who wanted to find a physical space together and try it out for a month. And because we lived upstairs, we knew the landlord and that the commercial space had been empty for nine to 12 months or something. We reached out to them and said, "Would you want to do a pop-up? Here's what we can offer," and part of the offer was cleaning up the space. They went for it, and so we split the rent and the shifts that month between the four of us. It was a month thing, and then it went into another month, and then we were like, "How about three months?" People started dropping off because life takes over, but Maegan and I wanted to keep going. It evolved through proving ourselves to the landlord and having them be more comfortable offering us longer term [leases]. We kept “Collective” in the name because we still have consignors and guest vendors … But it’s now been Maegan’s business for the majority of the time we've had the store.
Are you two still living above the shop?
No, we moved during the pandemic. We found a place around the corner with a little cheaper rent and outdoor space, so it was a no-brainer.
What did the March 2020 lockdown mean for you?
We stayed open for as long as we felt we could. We ended up closing a little before the mandated closure, and then we obviously stayed closed for the period of time that we had to. It was scary: scary from a health point of view, but scary financially, too. We've always had a good relationship with our landlord, so we didn't want to have any conflict or fight over the rent. We knew that we couldn't be open, and we knew that some other businesses around the place were refusing to pay rent, and that crossed our mind, but we never did that. We actually continued to pay rent.
How did you manage that?
We dipped into savings, as well as came up with some strategies to try and make money. Maegan came up with this genius idea that made our April rent, which we called Art Through Vintage. We're artists as well, and we've always known people who do art. We had already been talking to a few people about doing artwork on vintage, whether it's painting on a jacket, embellishing a toy in some way, or adding images to an existing piece of artwork, so we knew a lot of people were interested in doing that. When the closure happened, it was an impetus to treat that [idea] like a serious project. We reached out to a few people, which became 10 people, which ultimately became 72 artists who were working with us. Through FaceTime and Zoom, we would take them through the store and show them what we had, and everyone would pick an item that they wanted to paint on or embellish. We have a car, so we would drive around to Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Manhattan dropping things off contactlessly, letting [the artists] do their thing, and then getting it back from them contactlessly. We made a window display to advertise [the project] and drummed up a lot of interest in it. We auctioned all these things off on eBay, giving 50 percent of profits to the artists and 50 percent to us. There were 120 listings or something because some people did multiple pieces, and about 75 percent of the items sold during the auction, and then pretty much everything else has sold since then. It was amazing; people really showed their community spirit. It was a lot of returning customers, but a lot of new customers, too, who came to the project through the different artists involved. We've maintained some really good relationships with a lot of cool people from that project.
What else did you do to survive?
We'd always offered online sales, but we started getting more stuff up on the website and doing more sales through Instagram Stories. We offered curbside pickup and delivery within New York City. As things started to open up a little bit more, we did a couple days where we had our windows open, and people didn't come in, but they were allowed to shop visually [from the sidewalk].
Literal window shopping! When did you reopen for indoor shopping?
Whenever we could. I don't remember the date, but I think it was June or July.
How did you feel?
We were scared, for sure. The city was empty. We knew that a lot of our regulars had probably left town, either permanently or for the foreseeable future, so we expected that there'd be a starting from square one feel, which there was.
Also, we had a lot of work to do … We had a store in Jacksonville, Florida that was way younger than this one. It was something we did because Maegan’s brother lived there and he was sort of managing it, but he ended up getting a lot of extra commitments and not being able to put as much time into it, so we were managing from a distance. It was a challenge. We closed the store during COVID, in May or June. The reason I'm saying that is because we had a van load of stuff from that store that we brought here, and before we reopened we had to redistribute [inventory from] two stores into one. We did a deep clean, and we ended up knocking a wall out downstairs and changing the layout a lot … Before COVID, it was a little more of a functional space, and during COVID, we re-did it with more of a fun atmosphere in mind. When we opened, it was very rushed and DIY, and in many ways, it sort of stayed like that. But with the break from COVID, we had time to think about how we wanted to paint this wall, or install these racks. We gave more consideration to the color scheme.
What was the initial response like?
When we first opened, we had a lot of support. People were ready to shop again. And then it settled into a plateau … I think [people began to question], "Should we be shopping?" General shopping habits changed. People's uncertainty and fear, coupled with the fact that there weren't as many people here, meant we definitely took a blow [in sales].
What have you been doing to recover from that?
We got very involved in EVIMA, the East Village Independent Merchants Association. We were members before, but EVIMA came into its own during COVID. Maegan runs the Instagram for EVIMA, and it became a resource for neighbors looking to find out what the regulations were, what stores were still open, and what stores were closed. We were also doing Zooms with neighboring business owners, and it was intended as a way for merchants to be familiar with what assistance they had available, but also to talk amongst each other about how they were dealing with things. It ended up being a bit of a therapy session for everyone … Bonds were formed through dealing with the common challenges we were facing.
Did you get any emergency funding?
We did. Through [EVIMA], we stayed abreast of what support was available to us, and we took every opportunity we had to be in the mix for that stuff. We were one of 10 to get a grant from the Village Alliance, which was a really special and meaningful one because it was a panel of our peers and neighbors who chose to award us that, and it was a small group of businesses who got it. And from the beginning, we were very involved with this campaign called SOS, Save Our Storefronts. Eventually a bill was passed, which became the Empire State Development Grant, and it changed a lot, but it took a long time to come through. A lot of businesses had to close because they couldn't wait. We were Zooming with these people and watching people going, "I give up, I can't do this anymore.” But eventually the federal money came through to the state. And thankfully, we got one of those, too. So we had some good luck, after a long period of feeling like we were way too small to even be considered for stuff like this, because a lot of the initial government assistance, like the PPP and the EIDL, was very payroll-based.
In addition to this shop, you run a pop-up a couple blocks down. How did that come about?
We started that pretty much this time last year. It came about through us and some friends who are also artists wanting to have another creative outlet. Our friend Yelena from Jane's Exchange said, "There's a space next to us that is empty." It was like day one here [at East Village Vintage Collective]: we reached out to the landlord and said, "Hey, do you want something in there? This is what we can offer." We worked out a deal with him, and a year later, we're still there. It’s called 3rd & B’zaar, like 3rd Street and [Avenue] B. It's not open all the time ... We did an art show in January, a Valentine’s market in February, and in April, we rented it to someone who put on a visual art show. In May we did a market, Spring Into Pride, which was spring- and pride-themed, and I think that was the last one we did. Now, we're putting together another holiday market. I am a musician, so I'm doing a show there on October 7th. We’re just trying to use it for whatever we can while we have it.
Details about Alex’s upcoming show / Credit: East Village Vintage Collective
We're trying to keep a well-balanced life and not feel super stressed all the time, which is ironic because COVID was very stressful.
What have you learned about running a small business over the past year and a half?
The lesson of COVID was that it's okay to simplify your life a little bit. We reduced our hours because we figured that people who want to come to the store are going to work out our hours and come when we're open, and we don't necessarily have to be open every day from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., which were our hours before. We're on a quiet street that doesn't get a lot of walk-by traffic, so generally people who come here are going out of their way to come here. We got more involved in our community, got to know our neighbors a lot better, and got to know all these cool artists from the city. We're trying to keep a well-balanced life and not feel super stressed all the time, which is ironic because COVID was very stressful. But you’ve got to try and find the silver lining. Projecting into the future, there's a lot of uncertainty. I don't know if there'll be more variants and more sickness, and more closures as a result, or whether people will come back to retail shopping in full swing. We just don't know.
How to help:
- Visit the shop at 545 East 12th Street, NY, NY 10009 (Open Wed-Sun, 1-6 p.m.)
- Shop online
- Follow on IG and FB
Until next time,