Someone Else’s Junk, East N.Y’s Treasure
The drywall ceiling, walls, and linoleum floor resemble a colorfully eclectic collage. Every inch of the eggshell white walls is covered with wooden tennis rackets, porcelain owls, and other garage sale treasures.
Jeans, T-shirts and sweatshirts pile chest high on the rectangular center table. Duffle bags and suitcases dangle from ceiling hooks. Shelves stuffed with wine glasses and VHS tapes flank the walls. A musky scent, reminiscent of a grandmother’s high school yearbook, fills the shop.
This 40-year-old family thrift shop, owned by Louise Brown, provides low-income residents in East New York with a mixed array of merchandise. Brown purchases abandoned storage lot contents and sells what she finds in the cardboard boxes.
Just like Forest Gump, Brown says she never knows what she’s going to get.
“We get stuff from storage and unclaimed lots,” said Brown, 54. “We got TVs, toasters, shoes, wedding dresses, you name it. I got people going to Haiti, Santa Domingo and Africa bringing me stuff. We got it all.”
Brown slices open a large cardboard moving box marked August 15, #132. It is one of more than 150 mini fridge-sized boxes she buys from storage facilities every other day. The shipment’s other 149 unopened boxes are stacked in the corner like Legos, grazing the ceiling. She thumbs through the box’s contents: personal files, a child’s doodles, a report card.
“I never know what I’m going to get. We have a lot of memories that come through here,” said Brown. “In the 28 years since I inherited this business from my father, the shop remains a major part of those memories. So, we have a responsibility.”
The myriad of floral dish sets and vinyl records all bear low price tags: $2 for a shallow soup dish, $3 for a Frank Sinatra record.
During tough economic times, families here need to get by on less. Nearly 30 percent of East New Yorkers make less than $15,000 a year. Earlier this year, she opened a box filled with school uniforms. Each set sold for $1.
“The market has become more important in the last year because of the recession,” said Brown. “It’s out duty to be here for the community and to provide things people can afford.”
For some community members, the low prices are doing the trick.
“I own these four corners here and I can tell you this shop is different,” said life-long resident “Shorty” Caban. “I have a son who bought jeans for $150 [in Manhattan]. Here, jeans for 10 bucks.”
Caban has known Brown’s family for many years. Louise’s father, Charles Williams, started this business in 1969 by bringing abandoned furniture in off the street, cleaning it, and selling it. The family business, which first started as a flea market, gradually expanded from its original location on Pitkin Avenue to locations on Rockaway Avenue and Liberty Avenue.
“I have a 30-year-old and a 7-year-old,” said Caban. “They both grew up in this shop.”
Now, 40 years later, patrons still come to Louise’s Furniture and Flea Market to check out the vinyl records, Marilyn Monroe cutouts, and bible hymnals.
Tanira Williams, 10, is Louise Brown’s niece and shop assistant. Dubbed by family members as the third generation destined to run the thrift shop, she spends much of her time in the shop when school is out.
Her favorite subject in school is math, and it’s obvious where she gets practice for math class.
“The glass [vases] are my favorite,” said Tanira, pointing at an antique Victorian cabinet filled with periwinkle, plum, and emerald colored vases. “When people want to buy one, I know it is $5. When they want two, it is $10. It goes on.”
Tanira may be the next in her family to continue the family-owned world of wonders. Her smile beams radiantly just speaking about one day running the shop like “Aunt Louise.”
“Someday, I will work here,” she said. “I just want to help.”
Step through the narrow, wooden doorframe at Louise’s Furniture and Flea Market, and enter what would be the product of Bed Bath & Beyond meeting your neighborhood hoarder’s garage. The intentionally jam-packed studio is a one-stop shop for East New Yorkers. There is nothing you could want that Louise’s does not have.