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While Lower East Side stalwarts like Foley + Corinna, TG170, and Marmalade Vintage have shuttered or moved, little vintage shop Ellen has managed to hold onto a prime piece of Ludlow Street for almost nine years now—first on the east side of the street, and now on the west. We talked to owner Ellen Koenigsberg about what it's like to be a retail survivor in a highly volatile shopping neighborhood. The short answer: Forget about vacations.
Let's start by talking about how you got started, why you picked this street—your roots here.
I actually started as a make-up artist. This is like Plan B, or maybe Plan C. I started late, because I got a late start to not being a waitress. I was living in LA for like five years, doing make-up. I went to art school, so I loved the make-up, but selling myself was really hard for me.
I was always into thrifting. I grew up on Long Island, where people didn't go to the Salvation Army, but I did. So I found myself at 40, having a bit of a life crisis that just propelled me to take a risk. I'd always wanted a store because I love vintage. The girl who runs Resurrection, she used to have a tiny place on 7th Street, and I was always there selling her clothes. You know how they say "Do what you love"? I could never have worked as hard as a make-up artist as I've done at this.
So I would walk to the gym every day up Bleecker Street, and there was this store called Crocodile, and she sold mid-century modern furniture. And we would always talk. She was struggling, I was having this life crisis, and that talk turned into her saying "I'm really struggling with the rent, would you want to take a part of the store and do clothes?" So that's how that started, and I did that for two years.
Then her lease was up, it was 9/11, and everything was hard. She wanted to close, and I wanted to have my own store. I realized I could make a living at it. I had a little bit of money—literally, I opened my store on Ludlow Street with $7000. I don't know if you could do than now.
I lived on Norfolk Street. Except for my five years in LA I've lived my entire adult life in the East Village. And I just felt like the neighborhood was coming. At that time, 2002, it was just TG170, and my friend Hannah had a store called Marmalade. I found the space for rent, and I called the landlord and I begged him. He said, "Why do you want to rent this space? It's terrible down here." But I opened and got a friend to renovate it. And it evolved.
If you could go back to 2002, would you still pick this neighborhood?
That's so hard to say. At that time I would. Now, I mean, I think Williamsburg is good, but it's not for me.
Where do you source the merchandise from?
I'm probably the only one who still does thrifting. I don't buy online, I barely know how to work eBay. I'll tell you how I've survived: I've worked my butt off. I have no employees, I keep my overhead really low. I think I've made as much as a lot of stores, but I haven't spent anywhere near. It's been a labor of love. I buy every piece, I wash it in my bathtub, take it to the shoemaker, tailor, cleaner, everything. I've done that for almost ten years. Which is a job for three people. And now I have a kid!
What do you love in the store right now? What do you think will go fast?
I don't buy anything I don't love. It's not because I'm virtuous, it's just that this is my thing, you know? Things that are trend-driven, like this white fur coat ($385), will go fast. That's a higher-priced item. I know my prices aren't cheap, but everything is very high-quality. I think it's very fair and reasonable. Like Yves Saint Laurent pants for $295, as opposed to, say, $3000.
I love this black-and-cream dress. It was mine. That's $185. It's no particular label; I think it's early '80s. But also, these wool navy shorts are $185, compared with whatever they'd be new at a boutique.
This little navy 1940s dress is $285 because it's gotten really hard to find things like this. Prada might do something like that. I actually sell a lot to people like Prada and Marc Jacobs—designers who are looking for inspiration. Or girls who are willing to spend more on vintage because they know the quality is amazing.
What do you have planned for the future?
I have friends who opened a shop a few years ago called JF & Son. They are actually going to have a pop-up store here for November and December. We're going to share the space. The sign will still say Ellen, but they're going to have a spot in here. They're also going to hire someone, so I'm going to get a bit of a break. I haven't taken a break in nine years.
· Foley + Corinna Packs Its Bags, Departs Stanton Street [Racked NY]
· Ellen [Facebook]
· Ellen [Official Blog]