Liberty House Shuts its Doors
HOST INTRO: A lot of New York small businesses are pretty transient. But some can stick around for decades. One fair trade store on the Upper West Side is closing its doors after nearly 50 years. Melissa Caceres reports on what Liberty House’s closure means for the neighborhood.
CACERES: At the corner of 112 Street and Broadway, there is a small store with big glass windows. Customers are streaming in.
((SOUND: Store ambi))
CACERES: The shop sells one-of-a-kind imported items from around the world. Wooden masks from West Africa hang on the yellow walls. Red Pakistani spice boxes and the blue porcelain tea sets from Japan sit on counters. And everything is on sale.
((SOUND: Store ambi))
CACERES: But these discounts at Liberty House aren’t the kind employees ever wanted to offer. The store is closing, and it’s time to clear out the shelves.
To me, it’s rather traumatic to have the store close because I’ve bought so many presents here over the years.
Well, they were always rather unique. Lots of jewelry. Earrings, bracelets, necklaces.
CACERES: That’s Lisa Redd. She lives a few blocks away and has shopped at Liberty House for years. She says she’s seen a lot of locally owned stores like this one shutdown on the Upper West Side.
And that’s what’s heartbreaking. There used to be a store called Karin Alexis on Columbus in the 80s and that closed.
CACERES: And Liberty House used to have another location at 92nd Street and Broadway.
Then Liberty House closed in the 80s, that was upsetting. So now where do we go from here?
CACERES: That’s what Cathy Hawkins is trying to figure out. She’s the store’s owner. She says she tried her best to save the shop, but it didn’t work out.
I don’t know that I’ve really been able to process it yet. If that’s the right way to put it.
CACERES: Hawkin’s store is the last of a chain established in the 60s to help fund the civil rights movement. At the time, Liberty House sold handbags, dresses, and quilts made by a Southern co-op factory. It helped provide income to poor black communities.
All the money went, after the cost of rent and utilities would go to Mississippi.
CACERES: Right back into the hands of the factory workers. That’s a fair trade business. And Liberty House prioritized that strategy for decades. Ted Potrikus is the president of the Retail Federation of New York. He says if you think fair trade is a big seller, it’s not that simple.
What it comes down to is this we’re gonna, talk and talk and talk as consumers about how we support things like fair trade.
CACERES: But Potrikus says fair trade items are more expensive to manufacture. And consumers don’t really want to pay higher prices. So…
We go back online to find someplace where we can get something that looks like that thing that we wanted for cheaper. Well, wait a minute, you can’t have it both ways.
CACERES: Today’s consumer is used looking for bargains.
Primarily I think it’s because of the internet.
CACERES: Hawkins is right. If this sounds like the typical failing New York business story, that’s because it is. The National Retail Federation says brick-and-mortar store sales are expected to grow at 2.8 percent in 2017. But online retail’s growth? That’s expected to be between 8 and 12 percent, up to three times higher than the growth rate of the industry as a whole.
CACERES: Across the street from Liberty House, Carola Carstens is walking up the block. She’s a 37-year-old artist. She says a big percentage of her purchases are online.
I don’t know maybe 60 percent? Maybe more? Yeah?
CACERES: Carstens says she’s never been inside Liberty House. For brick-and-mortar stores, she’s part of the problem. She says buying online is more convenient.
I mean it’s easy, if you don’t like it you can return it.
CACERES: But back across the street inside Liberty House, Hawkins says she can’t afford to take on giants like Amazon. So she decided not to invest more money in the store and pull the plug. And today is the last day. There’s just hour left before the doors close. Friends and long-time clients gathered to give the store a jazz funeral. A band with a guitar, a mandolin and an accordion play to a crowd of nearly 20 visitors.
((SOUND: Band playing “Down by the Riverside”))
CACERES: The singers form a semi-circle in front of a wall of of half-empty shelves. Grey haired visitors crowd together sitting on antique trunks. Workers dabbed tears from their eyes. One of them is the owner Cathy Hawkins’ daughter, Christy Croslin. She says she grew up in her mother’s store.
I’ve never lived in a world without Liberty House. So it’s been something that’s been on the Upper West Side for a very long time. So it’s weird to think about little people growing up on the Upper West Side not getting that same experience.
CACERES: The next generation of Upper West Siders will find a different business at the corner of 112th Street. Croslin says she doesn’t know what the space will turn into. But she does hope one thing.
Just really hope it’s not a bank or a coffee shop.
CACERES: With over 1700, coffee shops in the city, it might. But it’ll take a while to empty out the last of Liberty House’s merchandise. There are still teapots, jewelry and wooden furniture leftover from the final sale. Croslin says maybe, just maybe, they’ll try selling some of them online.
Melissa Caceres, Columbia Radio News.