A Good Exchange
Fairfield’s Historic Shop
Christine Mihalec, an Exchange buyer, spends all year choosing special items to showcase.
Photo by Ryan Lavine
Try to imagine a time nearly two centuries before Etsy, when there were limited opportunities for people to sell their handmade goods to a wider audience. In the economically depressed late 1830s–except for a few factory mills in New England–wage paying work outside of the home for women was rare. Most of America still lived on farms, but both urban and rural women of the period sought extra income from producing handicrafts such as weaving, needlepoint, embroidery, sewing, food preserving, and quilting. Witnessing a woman trying to sell her wares unsuccessfully to a shopkeeper, Elizabeth Stott, a wealthy widow in Philadelphia, recognized the need for a place where women could exchange their handmade goods for cash or store credit.
So, along with some like-minded women, she founded the first “Woman’s Exchange,” a shop that operated as a non-profit organization. It was managed by volunteers and offered handmade items for sale on consignment. She called it the “Philadelphia Ladies’ Depository,” and that first shop kicked off what historians call the “Women’s Exchange Movement.” By 1934 there were about 200 in America.
One of the first Connecticut Exchanges appeared in West Hartford, and by 1935 Greenwich had one of its own. Edie Moore, a former resident of Greenwich, thought the idea of an Exchange would work well in her new hometown, Fairfield. In April 1962, she and 11 other women created the Fairfield Women’s Exchange out of a Victorian house on the Post Road, where Mathnasium is now located. The Fairfield Women’s Exchange was up and running, staffed then as it is now, by dedicated volunteers. As the popularity of the Exchange grew, they settling into the space they occupy today—the former Southport post office on Pequot Avenue in Southport village.
From its inception, the Fairfield Women’s Exchange, like most Exchanges, was a fashionable shop where women could sell their home-produced merchandise. But the FWE is also a community that combines elements of charity, cooperation, and retailing. It is an outlet where shoppers can have a tactile experience with crafts that express the creativity of the people who made them.
During their busy holiday season, the FWE is filled with all kinds of gifts—both handmade and not, along with home décor, and even antiques, for just about everyone on your list—male, female, young, or more mature. Depending on how you look at it, the shop has not changed all that much in 52 years. “There was a time when we had a large commercial freezer and took orders for cakes and casseroles,” explains Jan Perry, one of the founding members. “But then the health department required commercial permits to sell food, so they had to stop that.”
No matter—the Exchange constantly evolves, always bringing in a specially curated selection of items. Christine Milahec, one of the shop’s volunteers and buyers, looks to gift shows, current fashion, and design trends to locate items that are perfect for their clientele. While there isn’t fresh food anymore, there is a terrific selection of gourmet-packaged food—including See’s of California, French Farm, and Coop’s sauces.
The Fairfield Women’s Exchange is a bit of a hidden Southport Village gem, but a destination for many. “I always find special Christmas and hostess gifts there,” says Genevieve Swenson. Last Christmas Eve I found a festively wrapped present that a friend had left on my front step–it was a darling hand-knit baby hat for our newborn, and of course it came from the Fairfield Women’s Exchange.”
As a 501c (3) organization, proceeds from sales are given to charities that benefit women and children. As they did with those first Exchanges, artisans who provide their work to the shop also earn money. Of course, men are part of their roster of artisans today, and Tony Okerson, the artist behind the shop’s popular wooden name trains, took over his father’s woodworking business to continue the tradition. “This is one of our most requested items,” says Mihalec.
Another artisan, Katherine Biasotti, creates dolls—as tall as a 5-year-old, complete with elastics on the feet so a child can dance with the doll. “We really are helping others help themselves,” says Mihalec, “while offering a great retail experience for everyone.”
ARTISANAL TREASURES The original mission of all Exchanges in America was to bring handicrafts to a wider audience, and that tradition continues today. FWE always stocks hand-knit juvenile sweaters, created by talented artists from Fairfield and beyond.