A reverence for the Past

| 13 Apr 2017 | 04:25

If the Seinfeld character Elaine Benes had a real-world doppelganger, one with a larger, more caring heart, and a vintage clothing shop in New York City’s East Village, that person would be Delanee Koppersmith. Koppersmith opened her store on Ninth Street at the age of 21. And now, 36 years later, her vintage retail store, Cobblestones, has become an enterprise in the downtown community just as much as it is a place to buy and sell clothing.

Koppersmith is a character. She bears many of those characteristics common to “the consummate New Yorker”: she laments about where to find a good egg sandwich, “two eggs on a roll, salt pepper, ketchup, you know?” She was born and raised in Manhattan. She’s snappy and quick. When she talks about location, she speaks in streets and avenues like the cartographer who laid the grid. She zips around her space in a decisive manner. She works too much. And, Delanee, “pronounced like Melanie but with a D,” has little reservation about telling someone what she thinks.

It is not surprising that Koppersmith is interested in the past. After all, she chose the business of vintage retail. But her reverence for the past, or for the “old New York,” as she often calls it, goes beyond the realm of the physical goods she peddles.

Toward the back of the Cobblestones, nestled between a rack of garments on the right and a shoe display on the east wall, there is an aberration of sorts. There are three or four chairs that might — in the tight quarters so typical of Manhattan retail space — be deemed inconvenient or an impediment to foot traffic. But these chairs are fixtures. They are a part of what make Cobblestones and Delanee Koppersmith different from other retail shops and shop owners in Manhattan. Koppersmith keeps these chairs out so that her friends, who stop by frequently, always have a place to sit.

Maria Depo is one of those people. Depo, also a native Manhattanite, turned 87 in December. She first met Koppersmith when Cobblestones was located farther west on Ninth Street. After Fred Wilpon, the majority owner of the New York Mets, purchased the building in 1989, Koppersmith and her new store were ousted. Shortly thereafter, she relocated Cobblestones to its current address, 314 East Ninth Street.

Depo laughs easily, and often at her own expense, as she converses with Koppersmith. At one point Depo turned to me and said, “Delanee is like a Mother Cabrini or Mother Teresa to the dogs and little old ladies who live in the neighborhood.”

Out of the seven times I’ve gone to Cobblestones, Koppersmith always seems to be caring for one of her elderly friends, or walking one of their dogs. On my second visit, Koppersmith relayed to me that she had not slept at her own apartment in Astoria for the past six nights because she had been traveling and staying the night at her friend’s apartment on Coney Island. Her friend, Blossom, whom she calls “June Bug,” had injured herself in her apartment elevator. When Koppersmith received the news, she left work early and immediately went to be with her friend in Brooklyn.

Thirteen years ago, Mary Mayo, “didn’t know Delanee’s shop from a hole in the wall.” Mayo is the last surviving of her three sisters and five brothers. Or in her words, “I’m the last of the Mohicans.” Mayo had been looking to consign some of her things; her mother was a “saver.” Someone recommended Cobblestones. So she made the trip from her Ocean Hill, Brooklyn home, to Manhattan. The first two attempts Mayo made to consign her items at Cobblestones were not successful. Koppersmith did not think that Mayo’s items would be purchased. But, Mayo, who has an infectious optimism, said, “a little voice inside of my head, told me to go back and try one more time, and I’m so glad I did.”

Mayo’s connection with Koppersmith began like many of Koppersmith’s other relationships with her elderly friends, in business, and resulted in friendship. Mayo, like Koppersmith, has her own iteration of old New York. Mayo is deeply passionate about saving the century-old church, Our Lady of Loreto, that she has attended all her life.

Koppersmith’s opinions are articulated in a characteristically high-pitched, decided, and matter-of-fact tone. “I work with a lot of senior citizens in my business because I get the vintage clothes from them. I know them, and my nature is to give, to help. So, that’s what I do … I like talking to them, they are a link to the world that I wish that I was in and the New York City that used to be.”

Koppersmith grew up in the East Village. Her father was a schoolteacher at P.S. 71 and her mother worked for the city. On the top of her office desk there are two small leaden busts of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“That’s who I’m named after,” she said. “My father made up Delanee as the feminine of Delano.”

Koppersmith’s father, Harold Koppersmith, was by all accounts a character himself. And though Delanee’s parents separated when she and her sister, Donna, were young, Koppersmith says her family was close. Her father’s death in 1986 and her sister’s death from cancer in 1996 were difficult, unspeakable losses. “I know a lot of people who died of cancer, I don’t know why, but I can count them on two hands,” she said.

When Koppersmith says, as she often does that “I wish I could go back to the old New York,” I cannot help but think that in part, she wishes she could go back to a time when loss did not feature so prominently in her life. Though to be sure, the East Village has changed in real and concrete ways throughout Koppersmith’s life.

To Koppersmith, one of the most telling and troubling indictors of change is when local businesses are forced to close because their rents are too high.

“Everything you know, the dry cleaners on the corners, the Five and Ten over here that was kind of like a Woolworth’s you’d go in you could buy pots and pans or a housedress. You could buy school supplies. If you needed hardware items there was Kaminsteins, used to be on 3rd and Ninth, that’s a hardware store gone many years too.”

To Koppersmith, the “New York City that used to be” signifies a number of different things. It means that the more affordable working-class area she remembers as a girl has turned into a neighborhood that features, “restaurant, restaurant, restaurant, restaurant, restaurant, bar restaurant bar restaurant.”

She explains that the proliferation of restaurants is the byproduct of changed lifestyles, “People used to entertain in the house and now it’s all a matter of going out.”

Every time Koppersmith says she “wants to go back,” I am selfishly glad that she cannot. Delanee Koppersmith’s livelihood and business is to deal in tangible goods from the past world, and that is quite heartening. She is to me, in a sense, what her elderly friends are to her: “a link to the past.”

Before I left Cobblestones on my last visit, Koppersmith said: “Everything about vintage clothing is so ... nostalgic, but it’s also a representation of what life was and really, how much more precious it seemed to be back then.”