Saving the Memory of Old New York on E. 9th

The Villager, 2018

As I walked into Cobblestones, a vintage shop in the East Village, I heard swing music, the kind my dad played in a band in the 1940s. Ceiling fans were spinning above the long, narrow space packed with purses, shoes, hats, dresses, blouses. The owner, Delanee Koppersmith, sat at a cluttered desk with a rotary dial phone. The store had no cash register.

I’d been sad as I cleaned out my childhood home in Paterson, New Jersey, after my widowed mother died. My deceased parents never threw anything out and now we were selling the house. But I felt rejuvenated when Koppersmith, 59, loved my mother’s scarves and gushed over my father’s ties — wide, skinny, silk, hand-painted. She said some were rare.

My dad was a sharp dresser and always wore a tie to work. I brought her dozens. As the vintage dealer went through my stash, she pulled out a gorgeous blue number and said, “It’s so beautiful. You should keep this for yourself and wear it.” So I kept it. She put the ties on display selling for $28 to $36.

I even brought in my own stuff. The white fur stole I wore to the junior prom landed up in the shop window. I also gave her a plaid spring coat, very Jackie Kennedy. When Koppersmith checked out the pockets, she handed me a pair of rosary beads. One day, while I was in the store, a young woman bought my mother’s pretty blue scarf for $12. Koppersmith winked at me. I felt this sale was a sign from my mother, who’d passed away last year. Mom was saying hello, no doubt pleased someone appreciated her stylishness.

Each time I left with an itemized receipt with an estimate of what the store would charge for each item. I’d get half when it sold. I had no idea how Koppersmith could keep track of who gave her what. There was always a pile of new acquisitions on the floor. But I knew she did a good job remembering.

My fashionable ex-girlfriend used to bring in items she found at yard sales Upstate. That was how I first met the owner. I called her when going through my parents’ clothes. I started babbling about the great stuff. Koppersmith offered condolences.

As I started swinging by, I learned her routine for running a small business that had survived for decades. The store was open six days a week from 1 until 8. I figured she was able to relax at home in the mornings. But Koppersmith told me she got up at 6 every day and was in the shop by 9 dusting, straightening, arranging. She mentioned taking things home to clean and press.

“Did you ever consider getting an intern?” I asked. “Like a student from FIT?”

“Many people have volunteered to help,” she said. “But it’s better for me to be in charge.”

Tall and thin, with big, dark hair, Koppersmith often wore tuxedo pants, a ruffled blouse and jaunty neckerchief. She grew up on the Lower East Side and has owned Cobblestones on E. Ninth St. for 37 years. She moved to her current location, between First and Second Aves., in 1989. She called the block “the Madison Avenue of the East Village.” In its heyday, there were more than 30 venues, “interesting stores with character,” she noted.

I was impressed her shop had lasted so long.

“Lots of things explain my success,” she said. “I have a good variety and I’ve always kept my hours. I’ve worked hard and I’ve been lucky. I love the clothes I sell. My favorite periods are the ’30s and ’40s. The graphic designs were so beautiful then. Just look at the boxes. It was a calmer, simpler time when family meant everything and life was valued.”

I asked how she’d come by her affinity for the past. “I definitely think I lived in the ’40s,” she said. “I died young and I returned. Now I’m collecting the belongings I had back then.

“People come in for costumes for plays,” she said. “Designers of shoes and textiles come in for inspiration. The neighborhood used to have more musicians and artists when the rents were cheap. Now they are in Brooklyn. Business is not what it used to be. Internet sales have really hurt, as well as the buy-and-trade outlets.”

While I emptied out drawers and closets in my parents’ house, making many trips into Cobblestones, I got an idea of what sold. I showed her iPhone photographs of bags and blouses and dresses, and I’d only retrieve what the shopkeeper wanted. She rejected some of Mom’s clothes as “too mature” for her young customers. Since it was spring, she didn’t need winter apparel. But she advised which cold-weather items to hold for her — a fur wrap, a muffler.

As I dropped off items weekly, it was as if my parents came back to life through their clothes and accessories.

“Your father was really thin,” Koppersmith commented, as she tried on the black tuxedo jacket he wore as a sax player in a swing band. “Someone will buy this for a play.”

“Yes, he was thin and tall,” I said, showing her a photo of my father wearing it.

“Oh, my God, he was so handsome,” she remarked. “What color eyes did he have?”

“Blue,” I said. (Mine are brown like my mother’s.)

When I brought in two pairs of Mom’s shoes, Koppersmith said, “What a tiny foot.”

I told her my mother was only 5 feet tall, very petite, and weighed 90 to 100 pounds most of her life. I never realized her foot was that small. One was a pair of pointy-toed mesh high heels that my mother dyed gold to wear to a formal dinner; the other was a gorgeous pair of black-velvet flats with colorful sequins.

“Well, that’s interesting,” she said. “Your mom was short and your dad was tall. I bet the tall women were really jealous that she landed a tall guy when a short woman like her could’ve ended up with a short guy.”

I never viewed my parents’ height status that way. It seemed the shopkeeper was thinking the way people thought back in the 1940s when my folks married. This woman was totally into the past. As I uncovered stacks of Broadway Playbills when I cleaned out the house, I liked the idea of an actor sporting my father’s tux on stage.

Koppersmith has an upbeat personality, greeting each customer who walks into the shop.

“Hello, young lady,” she’ll say. “How is your afternoon going? Let me know if I can help you with anything.”

What got this woman interested in this quirky occupation? I asked, as she rummaged through a bag of goodies I’d brought in for her appraisal.

“I didn’t go to college,” Koppersmith said. “I worked for a designer and then briefly moved to Arizona. When I came back I was 21 and thought, What am I going to do with my life? By then, things started gentrifying in the East Village. My mother always talked about having a vintage store but she had a job with benefits, so it was up to me. When I initially opened in 1981, my rent was $450 a month. I painted the walls, put up shelves. In the first store, I had more glassware and jewelry and less clothing.”

I recalled her first place since I had moved from New Jersey to the East Village in 1975 and lived in the neighborhood for two decades. As a witness to the gentrification, I was curious if her clientele had changed.

“My customers are mainly young women, students and locals,” Koppersmith said. “I also get a lot of tourists, especially in the summer. I can sit in my chair and go around the world.

“Another thing I love about running this business,” she added, “is that I take things on consignment from senior citizens. They are thrilled that their possessions have another life and the income helps them. Through my store, I’m saving the memory of old New York.”