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Children, some parents feel, grow up too fast. Other parents find that they don’t grow up fast enough. Either way, sooner or later kids outgrow their clothes and lose interest, alas, in their toys, leaving parents to deal with the wistfulness that comes with disposing of once-cherished belongings, and the mild guilt of having to burden an already overtaxed planet with yet another round of new purchases. But for those looking to find a new loving home for their adorable discards, and find high-quality, lightly-used replacements, there’s Jane’s Exchange at 191 E 3rd Street, our latest Business of the Month!
This children’s consignment shop, the last of its kind in Manhattan, is one of those classic East Village stores that bursts with personality and personalities. Colorful and whimsical, it invites you to lose yourself looking for treasures among its assorted merchandise. This includes clothing for kids of all ages (from embryos [i.e., maternity wear] and infants through teens and everything in between); means to transport children, such as strollers, car seats, and even bicycles; and all kinds of ways to entertain young ones, including board games, wooden toys, action figures, and a great selection of books for all levels in several languages (Tintin!). All this you will find in great condition and for unbeatable prices at Jane’s Exchange, especially if you have built up a credit through the sale of your old stuff.
To talk only about the merchandise at Jane’s Exchange, however, is to lose sight of much of what makes the store unique. It is a place where both children and their parents come just to hang out. Kids gather in the reading area or around boxes of toys (kept there for that purpose) or in front of the TV, watching movies. Parents chat about movies or doodle on one the guitars kept by the owners at the store, or just shoot the breeze with the friendly proprietors. It is also a place where kids occasionally help out in exchange for small toys and carry on as if they worked there; and they can come in with something to sell and try to get something in return. (Some apparently drive a hard bargain. Then again, being parents themselves, so do the owners).
Jane’s Exchange is the brainchild of Eva Dorsey, a longtime East Village resident who came up with the idea in 1993, while pregnant with her daughter Jane, after considering the needs of local families with whom she dealt in the neighborhood. A children’s consignment store, she thought, would offer a budget-friendly way for parents to shop for their families and also afford her the flexibility and independence to care for Jane. She was shortly proven right. The store was a success with the local community, and over the course of several decades, became an integral part of the neighborhood. But when her last partner retired in 2019, Eva decided that perhaps the time had come to shut the business down. The announcement was greeted with alarm by customers and neighbors. Among those especially distraught were Rodney and Yelena Ferrer, who felt so strongly about the important role that Jane’s Exchange played for families like theirs that they resolved to try to save the store. After a good deal of scrambling, they managed to do just that; and Eva, whose flexibility and help made the transition to the new owners possible, agreed to stay onboard to further assist them with the changeover.
Also longtime residents, Yelena and Rodney came into the picture with a background in filmmaking, business, and fashion that they felt translated perfectly into the management of Jane’s Exchange, a quasi-artistic production in itself. Yelena draws from her experience in fashion and as a parent in selecting toys that appeal and clothing for its style and quality. For this reason, you’re likely to find among the store’s curated selection eye-catching items like red capes and vintage board games.
More important than their background in shaping their management approach, however, has been their respect for the enduring ethos of the store, which is especially reflected, for instance, in the voluminous donations of merchandise that they quietly make to needy families in the neighborhood and abroad, but which also touches their most basic business decisions. As Yelena describes it:
“The number one thing that I love about the store [is that this] store makes everyone feel comfortable when they walk in. Every type of individual from any economic level will walk in here and feel comfortable. A lot of that has been lost to gentrification. So much has been taken away from the community. How wonderful is it that a family from anywhere with $15 can walk in and buy a stroller? They can buy a bunch of jeans for the kids for $3 to $5, and those jeans are high quality. So they never feel when they walk in here that they don’t have enough or that they’re looked down upon because of their economic level. And that’s the way it should be! A customer should never feel that they cannot walk into a space. And that has been done all over the place in the city. But that’s not who we are.”
Jane’s Exchange continued to thrive under Yelena and Rodney, not just because of the consistent management philosophy, but also because of the store’s reputation. The store draws customers from throughout all five boroughs and beyond. Many out-of-town visitors — a significant part of the clientele — have made the store a destination, knowing that East Village consignors provide the store with a constant supply of often unique toys and clothes that are hard to find anywhere at such low prices (or at any price). As fate would have it, however, only one year after the couple had taken over the store, the pandemic put an end to out-of-town visitors, and to business altogether.
For a while, Yelena and her partners thought Jane’s Exchange would not survive. Eva decided to retire; and Jane, who had been helping with upkeep during the closure, jumped at the opportunity to help rescue the business, becoming a partner (the eponymous one) in the store that had always been such a huge part of her life. The three then experimented briefly with an on-line arrangement whereby customers gave a budget and general instructions, and then trusted the folks at the store to assemble packages at their discretion. Disliking the impersonality of this model, though, they shut the experiment down after just two months and focused instead on resuming their regular in-person operation as best they could. Yelena believes that this decision saved them.
“When we went completely offline, it brought us more business, because we focused on the store experience and people responded. We focused on being an old-school shop in the East Village and knowing every customer and knowing their name and their children’s name. People wanted to come in and say hello. And who we are to the community I feel saved us.”
Members of the community whom Yelena singles out for their extraordinary help throughout the pandemic include Charles from Exit 9 Gift Emporium (our August, 2016 Business of the Month) and Maegan from East Village Vintage Collective (October, 2018 Business of the Month) (“I don’t know what we would have done without her.”), as well as other members of the East Village Independent Merchants Association (EVIMA). The store has also enjoyed several unexpected windfalls. Netflix took over the store for a shoot, which helped pay for a month’s rent. The novelty gift shop Alphabets, which sadly shut its doors after thirty-five years on Avenue A, decided to donate all its children and gift related merchandise, boxes upon boxes, to Jane’s Exchange. When the word spread, many rushed to the store to do their holiday shopping. One particular shopper, whose list we wish we were on, spent $1,500 on Christmas gifts in one fell swoop. Says Yelena, “I almost fainted.”
Business has begun to pick up in recent months, but not to sustainable levels; and substantial government aid has been hard to come by for very small businesses like this one. Still, the folks at Jane’s Exchange remain optimistic about the prospects of their business and believe that their struggles and those of their neighbors have deepened the bonds within the local business community. Early on, realizing that no one would survive without each other’s help, stores throughout the neighborhood (and especially along East 3rd Street) started promoting each other, co-hosting outdoor events, and occasionally even selling each other’s wares. Yelena feels that the spirit of collaboration that has brought together her store and those of her neighbors, such as The Wild Project, Book Club Bar, Kolkata Chai, and 3rd and Bazaar, have sown the seeds of a 3rd Street revival.
“East 3rd is blooming. It’s like the place to be. We partnered with every business on the street. We realized that our business would not survive without the others. That brought something to this street. We have open streets here on Saturdays… there are a lot of artists and vendors. It feels like NYC from years ago. It’s a renaissance of artists that came together to make sure that these last businesses [would] survive, and we joined forces; that’s what we did. We all knew that we weren’t making any money. There wasn’t any money to be made. But there was something bigger that we were working with and that was saving our communities and saving our businesses.”
So come down to East 3rd Street for a taste of once and (we hope) future New York. And if you have children in your life, stop by our Business of the Month, Jane’s Exchange, for a dinosaur, a space helmet, and a story book. And if you don’t, stop by anyway. Who knows? Maybe the time hanging out at this wonderful store will inspire you to find some.
For all these reasons and more, Jane’s Exchange is our June, 2021 Business of the Month. Stop by at 191 E 3rd Street (between Avenue A and B), or visit their website.
What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc
Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month: