Farewell to an Old Curiosity Shop

Farewell to an Old Curiosity Shop|Farewell to an Old Curiosity Shop

Out of the Closet Thrift Shop closes after 15 years; Housing Works picks up ball

Out of the Closet Thrift Shop has collected untold numbers of high-end giveaways in its East 81st Street venue and turned them into much-needed dollars and donations for more than 70 AIDS services organizations over a span that has now reached the 15-year mark.

Unfortunately, the steep rent increases that have become an everyday fact of life in Manhattan and indeed across the city have finally caught up with the charitable venture. Out of the Closet is forced to close up shop for good on Gay Pride Weekend.

The thrift shop was the brainchild of Edward Maloney, who surmounted a variety of hurdles trying to develop a charitable thrift store during the first decade of the AIDS crisis. Facing the possibility that it might finally be time to throw in the towel has been equally difficult, Maloney said. For him, there is some consolation in the fact that somebody is ready to step in to carry on the mission to which he has devoted more than a decade and a half.

“Housing Works came into view and the right road seemed obvious,” Maloney explained about the solution he found after numerous sleepless nights and examination of many options. “While our emphasis is wider and more generalized, they also help PWAs [people living with AIDS] by focusing on the homeless and minority at-risk communities. Several meetings with them convinced me that our very different organizations had a lot in common.”

While Out of the Closet is closing, starting on August 2, Housing Works will devote all 4,000 square feet of its Columbus Avenue store to merchandise originally donated to Maloney’s foundation, which will receive half the proceeds during a special 50-day period.

Matthew Bernardo, president of Housing Works thrift stores, feels the two stores’ goals are a good fit. He also said, “We’re happy with the merchandise. We’re both on the higher end of the thrift-store ladder, and we can help get the best prices for these donations.”

Maloney is also pleased that his store’s “accumulated treasures” will be given more exposure—and quadruple the space—beginning in August.

“It’s always sad to lose someone who’s fighting for the same cause,” Bernardo said, in obvious sympathy with the difficulties Maloney is having letting go of his own enterprise. “It’s one less group generating funds for HIV and AIDS.”

Maloney first conceived the idea for a store in 1985. Initially working with three friends, Maloney in 1986 ran afoul of an IRS agent who told him, “The words ‘AIDS’ and ‘charity’ don’t belong in the same sentence.” It took the help of New York’s late Democratic Sen. Patrick Moynihan for the group to overcome some hurdles to become incorporated with not-for-profit status in 1987. Then, the group had trouble convincing the major AIDS organizations at the time to sponsor a shop. So, they borrowed enough money to open in 1991 at 220 East 81st Street.

“We’ll always be thankful to opera singers Jessye Norman and Peter Kazaras for their faith and financial help in the very beginning,” said Richard Kowall, treasurer for Out of the Closet, who also listed other early supporters—film critic Vito Russo, journalist Andy Humm (a Gay City News contributor), poet Alan Ginsberg, dancer Robert La Fosse, actor Harvey Fierstein and activists Emery S. Hetrick and A. Damien Martin. Susan Horowitz of the Newfest arranged a donation drive at the old Bombay Cinema on 57th Street, and the late Father Mychal Judge showed up with two vans full of dry-cleaned donated clothes.

One of the delights of the store that will be lost in the hand-off to Housing Works has been the space it has occupied—an 1830s farmhouse. A back building—home to men’s clothing, 10,000 books, and 3,000 records—is a horse stable from the 1850s.

Perhaps in part due to the appeal of the space, the store received consistently favorable press from the start. Newsday declared it “easily the most charming of the lot,” in a comparison with other Upper East Side thrift stores. Alongside ordinary household items were pieces of Limoges, Meissen and Steuben, as well as fine art from five major New York museums and all the auction houses. The store earned “New York” magazine’s Best Thrift Shop designation by 1993.

PBS’s “Globe Trecker” exposed the store to audiences on five continents, as did listings in New York travel books published in France, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia and Japan.

“Because of such extraordinary publicity, we’ve sent Gucci luggage to Venice, Pucci dresses to Japan, 600 LPs to Norway, tea cups to London, fur coats to Alaska, 100 ties to Prague and laser discs to Amsterdam,” Maloney recalled. “Great things have been given to us because people know that we take very good care of their donations.”

Some of the notable items that have moved through Out of the Closet included original Picasso ceramic, pre-Columbian textiles and a painting by French Impressionist Eugene Boudin.

The store’s global reach worked both ways—donations have come from “as far away as England, Italy, and California,” Maloney said, and from personalities “as diverse as Barry Diller, Mario Buatta and Walter Cronkite.”

TV spots on ABC’s “20/20” and on a Gay Cable Network show have brought in a variety of customers who have responded to the store’s “Old Curiosity Shop” visual overload. Along with outfitting many New York waiters, Maloney said, “We’ve had such fun dressing people who were going to the Oscars, the Vienna Opera Ball and even the wedding of a Dutch crown prince.”

Out of the Closet has also provided harder-to-find props for plays and movies. The shop has attracted its share of celebrities through the years—Bette Midler, Patricia Neal, Patrick Stewart and Dick Cavett, to name a few.

Store volunteer Maryell Semal, who has worked at Out of the Closet since it opened, said, “As a New Yorker, I wanted to work on AIDS and homelessness.”

Semal and a longtime colleague from the Japan Society Gallery, Mistuoko Maekawa, joined together to honor a friend who died of AIDS. While many repeat customers recall favorite purchases with fondness, Semal explained that at least some professional dealers have at time gotten “very angry that we know what we have, that we do research on antiques and artworks.”

To make the “charitable alchemy” as profitable as possible, Out of the Closet is staffed exclusively by volunteers. After rent and expenses, the store has given money and material goods to AIDS service organizations that provide hospital and hospice care, programs for teens and gay adults, and educational, residential, recreational and legal services for PWAs, as well as those doing AIDS education work. The diverse group of more than 70 beneficiary groups has included the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, the Lesbian AIDS Project and the Hetrick-Martin Institute.

One longtime beneficiary has been the Gay and Lesbian National Hotline, which provides peer counseling and disseminates information on HIV transmission and risk-reduction.

“We find that a lot of people calling us are feeling isolated,” said Brad Becker, the hotline’s executive director. “They either don’t have good information or don’t feel comfortable talking to someone in person. So we can turn the call into a larger conversation about self-esteem. That affects their [sexual] decision-making.”

Becker said most support comes from individuals, but getting donations from Out of the Closet for 15 years “has been support we’ve been able to depend on—and a great gift for us.”

Highbridge Woodcrest, a 90-bed facility for PWAs in the Bronx, has also been receiving both financial grants and clothing donations from Out of the Closet for 15 years. Charles Bolds, director of therapeutic recreation at Highbridge Woodcrest, noted that for PWAs who are homeless or just released from hospitals, clothing has been vital.

“In recent years, with PWAs living longer—and gaining weight—keeping them in clothes [that fit] is important.”

The store usually sends two truckloads of clothing a year to the facility.

Like much of the rest of the city, Out of the Closet has been affected by the changing economic tides unleashed by 9/11. Maloney said that for the past three years, “Everyone from Madison Avenue dealers to street vendors all tell us about slower sales that have not recovered, and among our neighborhood regulars there is growing unemployment and shrinking fixed incomes.”

On the other edge of the economic sword has been the real-estate boom, which resulted in the extraordinary rent increase that is forcing the store’s closure.

Out of the Closet is also looking forward to continuing its efforts for the AIDS community by looking toward the Web.

“We will keep looking for other ways to helps fight HIV/AIDS on our new homepage at outofthecloset.us. Who knows? Maybe we will become the first virtual thrift shop.”

The 50-day event featuring merchandise from Out of the Closet will begin August 2 at the Housing Works store on Columbus Avenue, between 73rd and 74th Streets. The store will also feature items from Out of the Closet in 10-day online auctions. Go to housingworksauctions.com and click on “Shop Windows.”