Monday, November 22, 2010

OUTCASTS THRIFT SHOP: A Miracle on Tenth Avenue

When Outcasts Thrift shop first opened on Tenth Avenue in the nineties few shoppers ventured west of Ninth Avenue. After all Hell’s Kitchen's main street always had character. It is a haven for good eating thanks to the annual Ninth Avenue International Food Festival, its many restaurants, ethnic gourmet stores and mom-and-pop shops. Tenth, always the poor-cousin, lacked an identity.

Back then empty or dingy looking stores, auto part shops, gas stations, parking lots, a crime-plagued park, and run down tenements filled the avenue.

Outcasts gave people a reason to visit Tenth. Run by St. Clements Church at 423 West 46th Street, Outcasts first operated from the church before moving to Tenth. It quickly became a popular stop for area residents looking for bargains even though it resembled a Bowery rummage sale.

In time due to the efforts of co-managers Peter Valentyne and Keith Benedict (both have since left) Outcasts evolved into “The Miracle of Tenth Avenue.”
“We are a place of resurrectible goods,” Valentyne said. “We give one a reason to feel good and gain from other people’s castoffs.”

These efforts have worked.  Customers agree.
“It is a magical place. I remember things I did not buy,”
Kathy Lynwood said. Lynwood, who shops here often, added “This is a place for all seasons. It lifts one’s mood on those somber days even if you leave without buying a thing.”

Both Valentyne, a poet from Michigan, and Benedict, an actor, painter and native of Wales shared a passion and vision for Outcasts. Together they created a warm and inviting place.  It is a boutique minus the pretentiousness and high prices a some of the nicer looking shops in the city. It’s a place for people with and without money.

People come here not only to browse but chat with the personable Messrs. Valentyne and Benedict. Both have worked at Outcasts for about eleven years. People bask in the store’s soothing visual displays, aromatic smells and eclectic music before leaving with a bag of goodies or that one terrific find.

The small storefront window is hard to miss. Its theme- oriented setups contain eye-catching displays. Stylishly dressed mannequins in full makeup offer a glimpse of what to expect inside.
Despite its cozy size Outcasts is not cluttered, “We position things and layer colors to give it a life of its own,” Valentyne said. 
Browsing the racks as I did I found silk jackets, men and women’s suits, sport jackets, Italian mohair and cashmere sweaters, evening and casual dresses by Willi Smith, Barney’s NY, Liz Claiborne, Jones Street, Anne Klein and Sag Harbor.

Outcasts sells decorative lamps, hand painted vases, framed paintings and photographs, ornaments, jewelry, tableware and much more. There is a huge CD, DVD and book collection.  The two-dollar “Mystery Brown Bag” is popular and filled with Valentyne’s handpicked “curiosities .”

St Clement’s uses the monies earned here for its ministries: a volunteer vet clinic,  food pantry, homeless outreach, and assisting needy neighbors. It also has a highly regarded theater ministry.
Founded in 1830, St. Clement’s Episcopal Church has long advocated social activism. Its ministry has included women, gays and people of diverse backgrounds for years.  In 1962 St. Clement’s reconfigured its church to include a theater, which is it calls the second oldest Off Broadway house.

Outcasts customers are from Hell’s Kitchen, actors and set designers from local theaters and Broadway, and tourists from the cruise ships docking at Westside piers.  Once actor Alec Baldwin, after admiring the front window, popped in and bought all their snow globes and alarm clocks.

Katherine Consuelo-Johnson, a Texas native and a St. Clement’s congregant, is the new manager. She has ten years of experience with antiques and online auctions. She first learned of Outcasts as a shopper. when she bought a television after moving to New York.

Major changes are underway. St. Clement's board sought change as controversy existed with the prior management.  But Outcasts under Consuelo-Johnson's leadership and with her energy and ideas the shop has blossomed and is thriving. “We want to make it more accessible for the elderly and women with strollers. We plan to sell more items from boxes and sell personal goods that will suit the tastes of our visitors,” Consuelo-Johnson said. “We need more volunteers. Eileen cannot do it alone.”

“This is a very neighborly place,” Eileen Hardy said. A Hell’s Kitchen resident and a volunteer of several years Hardy added “What makes it special and fun is we get new things everyday. When someone finds that one-of-a-kind piece that cannot be found anywhere else then we all smile.”

Even with change Outcasts is a treasure chest filled with wonderful things.
OUTCASTS is at 660 Tenth Avenue between 46 & 47th Streets. Hours: 
Mon - Sat 10:30-6pm; 212-974-0121 Donations accepted.