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A hobby is a nice thing to have. But, like many things that begin as a lighthearted fun, hobbies can take on a life of their own and occasionally take over yours. At that point, you’re faced with two choices: give in to your obsession, letting conventional concerns fall by the wayside, or somehow channel your hobby into outward-facing pursuits that might just redound to the benefit of humanity. Lucky for all of us, the owners of our August 2023 Business of the Month, D.L. Cerney at 324 East 9th Street (1st/2nd Ave.), chose option number two and turned a passion for vintage clothing collecting into a beloved business: a purveyor of 1930s, 40s, and 50s-style garments that allow customers to look like Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, or like the most stylish depression-era coal miner in town. This is their story.
D.L. Cerney was established in 1984 by Dwayne and Linda (St. John) Cerney, longstanding yard sale habitués with a strong appreciation for the style and quality of vintage clothing. During the years leading up to the launching of the store, this penchant had become a family pastime of sorts. While living in Carbondale, IL and then in Knoxville, TN, the couple would hop in the car with their young daughter Suzi and drive through small southern and midwestern towns hunting for general stores to check out their deadstock (i.e., residual inventory stored away as unsaleable). If they saw merchandise they liked, they would make an offer. The proprietors would think that they were crazy for wanting that stuff. The Cerneys would think that they were getting a fantastic deal, an entire collection of unused shoes, for instance, for $1 a pair.
So whenever unused vintage clothing stock caught the couple’s eye — which was often — they would acquire it. The couple had no greater plans for their acquisitions. These shopping excursions just became something that the family did. Sooner than expected, however, this hobby had gotten out of control and a very large clothing collection threatened to overwhelm the household. Suzi recalls:
The shoes, most of them didn’t fit us. But you couldn’t resist buying them, because they were beautiful objects. You could just present them and look at them and not even have to wear them. But, I mean, you don’t need that many. We had hundreds and hundreds of pairs: slingbacks, lace-ups, wingtips, snapjacks, work boots… We had to do something.
The Cerneys’ plan in the spring of 1984 was to move to Atlanta, GA so that Linda, who had just finished law school, could embark on a legal career. Before the move, however, the family came to New York for a week-long visit to a friend who lived in the East Village. Within days, Linda announced, “we’re staying.” Asked to explain what led to this sudden decision, Suzi jokes that it might have been the neighborhood bread and then embarks on a reverie that touches on a classic Italian bakery on 1st Avenue between 7th and 8th Street with garlic knots that she still dreams about, one on 9th Street off 2nd Avenue with dense black bread loaves that weighed like five pounds, and a Swiss one on 2nd avenue between 9th and 10th Street… So Suzi might well be joking; but not entirely. Perhaps the bread represents the rich variety that the city and the neighborhood had to offer. Or maybe it was just really delicious bread. The fuller explanation for the decision, however, is that Linda simply fell in love with the wild magic of a neighborhood that, even down at the heel, was bursting with energy and like-minded people. It contained vintage stores, independent designers, jewelers, and little quirky small businesses wherever you looked. And Linda wanted to open a store and be a part of that. Plus it was cheap!
It took the Cerneys a matter of days to find an apartment, a beautiful one on East 6th street, and a storefront on East 7th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues sandwiched between two venerable neighborhood institutions, McSorley’s and the Ukrainian store Surma. They were able to launch the business by July, since they didn’t have to worry about merchandise. (In fact, the size of U-Haul that they required to move their collection made clear that opening a store was no longer a choice, but a necessity.) The family essentially stocked the business with items for their personal stash. To their delight, they discovered that there was a strong niche demand for it.
The concept of D.L. Cerney has remained constant since the outset: unworn vintage-style garments from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, everything from Hollywood-waisted pants to coal miner dungarees and flared, tea length skirts.
Because the family’s personal collection was not inexhaustible, new sources of merchandise became necessary by the early 90s. So the Cerneys decided to produce their own clothes, inspired by favorite items from among the ones that they had long carried. At first, they used vintage fabrics procured at the garment district, cut them themselves at a workshop they opened downtown, and had the items sewn locally. These days, they draw from their considerable collection of vintage fabrics (and of contemporary fabrics that have, after a few decades in the family’s possession, become vintage), cut them upstate, where the workshop moved after 9/11, and sew them here. The result has been a line of beautiful, vintage-looking, made-to-last articles of clothing. And every now and then, they still stumble upon misplaced boxes full of vintage garments from their original collection and add them to their inventory.
Despite D.L. Cerney’s loyal following, the shop was forced to shut down in 2013, when its lease was not renewed. For several years, the family operated as a pop-up, unsure what the future held in store for the business. In 2015, a serendipitous, modest, for-rent sign appeared right across the street from their temporary setup. The family jumped at the opportunity and, next thing you know, they had a new permanent home just a couple of streets away from their original one. Thrilled with the relocation, Suzi finds in 9th Street the same neighborhood feel that drew the Cerneys to the neighborhood decades ago and that is at risk of disappearing in so many parts of the city.
Much has changed in the East Village since 1984. The neighborhood is considerably more expensive. Many of the D.L. Cermey’s regular customers have moved away. On the other hand, the store’s client base has expanded. East 9th Street has increasingly become a tourist destination and, therefore, so has the shop. Moreover, vintage clothing has far broader appeal than it once did. These days, a lawyer might shop at D.L. Cerney for work wear. Back in the day, you wouldn’t have done that unless you worked, say, as a bassist.
As welcome as all these new customers are, the ones who hold a special place in the Cerneys’ hearts are those who, having left years ago, stumble upon the store and swing by to say hi and tell of cherished items that they bought there back in the 90s and that they still wear. This happens with surprising frequency and, invariably, these visitors express shock that the store is still around. Suzi often replies, “you can’t get rid of us!”, but she is genuinely puzzled by D.L. Cerney’s longevity:
It has to be the quality of the clothes. We always put that first and foremost. I still do all the cutting. We still use the mother of pearl for the buttons. Still use natural fabric. It is still made right here. And we’re stubborn. We don’t want to go…. But I really don’t know what I would attribute [our longevity] to. It’s very humbling though.
For helping us find glamor and craftsmanship in even a pair of 90 year old dungarees, we’re thrilled to name D.L. Cerney our August 2023 Business of the Month.
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: