Learning at the 'Alter'
by Emily Gallagher
Jan 03, 2018 | 1261 views | 0 0 comments | 55 55 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In 2006, I was working part-time in acquisitions at a famous art museum. I saw it as an opportunity to learn about the business, but the main thing I learned was that I did not like working at a famous art museum.

Much of the work was about convincing the 1 percent to share artwork they had purchased for millions of dollars with the institution. In return, they would not have to pay taxes on the art because it would be a donation write off.

To me, this work was draining my soul. I loved art and the personal and political things it stood for, the lessons it taught us about history and the human experience. However, the work I was doing was not about that. It was about wealth.

My boss was condescending and aggressive, and the job was simultaneously dull and uncomfortable for me. Unsurprisingly, I got laid off from that job in the summer of 2007, and I had no desire to be employed in that realm again, which was jarring since I had attended college in order to get that exact job.

I was on unemployment and looking for work, but felt so jaded and shaken from my bad experience that I wanted to take a break from the art world. Walking down Franklin Street, I saw a “help wanted” sign in a window of a new clothing store, Alter. I decided to go in and check it out.

At Alter, I met the owners Tommy Cole and Roy Caires. They were enthusiastic and fun, unpretentious, friendly and kind, and they were everything that my previous supervisors had not been. I decided to apply to work there after visiting a few times, and they hired me as their first part-time employee.

I meant to only stay for a little while, as I thought about my next move, but I fell in love with the job. I learned far more than I had initially intended. Tommy and Roy truly had an entrepreneurial mindset; when they needed something they usually found a way and did it themselves.

They were able to build their business operating on a shoe-string budget, and they really were passionate about the work they did. They had their own clothing line, which recycled vintage into new and original garments. They also bought vintage and new clothing, and were bringing a new spirit of fashion to the neighborhood.

At this time on Franklin, there weren't many stores. Most had been converted into housing and there were a few DIY art galleries, but it wasn't like it is now. At first they were so dedicated to the business that they lived in the back of the store. With their ceaseless dedication, the business grew.

Tommy and Roy were extremely interested in supporting the community. They chose to work and live in Greenpoint because they loved it here. They read the local papers regularly and got to know the neighbors.

They were interested in the current issues and built alliances with other businesses on the block. Through them I largely learned the spirit of neighborliness. They regularly and consistently welcomed people from the community, regardless of whether or not they were customers.

They got to know those who lived in their building, and they collaborated with other local stores. As I worked there, I couldn't help but learn about the community. I heard about the history of the neighborhood when I would take breaks to sit outside on the bench and neighbors would join me.

I met people who I developed deep and meaningful relationships with just from their shopping visits. Working at a clothing store is a great way to see a little bit into someone's life. People would come in and tell me the stories, and I would help them find clothing that made them feel good about themselves.

We had a whole community of regulars who would come by sometimes to purchase things, but often just to catch up. We would talk about current events and pop culture, but also about people's dreams, families, and aspirations.

We would break the ice and get customers to talk to each other. We would host events to create connections with our community and connect them with one another. I would help people choose outfits for a first date and help them feel confident after a break up.

I would give feedback on outfits to attend weddings and funerals and job interviews. Very quickly, I became a part of many people's lives in the neighborhood. Sometimes, walking down the street or at a bar, I would see someone and they would smile and wave and chat with me, and I would realize that they were a customer of mine.

Once, walking over the Williamsburg Bridge, I ran into a customer who was excited to give me a life update and walked with me to the other side. I met people's parents and watched them get married and pregnant and have children. I didn't just live in Greenpoint anymore, I lived Greenpoint, or a part of it.

Working at a small business taught me what a special and beautiful thing a neighborhood is. And I was the eyes on the street on that little block for so long. I noticed people moving in and out, I watched businesses open and close, I was a witness to a car accident, I wept when I watched a beloved neighbor with HIV be taken to the hospital for what was the last time.

When we shop locally, we are not just buying items, we are participating in building a strong community foundation. Small local businesses provide so much more than a service, they provide something intangible that little else can: a connector between politics, people, commerce, and real, genuine friendship, effort and love.

In 2018, let's resolve to support local businesses even more than before. As our neighborhood changes, we need them. Some my regular customers have become real life friends.

Thank you, Tommy and Roy, you taught me so very much and gave me a community I still continue to love. Alter has been in the community for over ten years now, so why not show them some love as well.

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