One time, at the Housing Works on Columbus Avenue between 74th and 75th streets, I bought a Helmut Lang scarf.
This was three years ago, and I still have not worn it. I knew this would be the case when I bought the scarf – it is almost twice the length of my body, and is significantly thicker than any scarf I have seen before (or since). More than anything one might wear, it looks and feels like a stuffed animal of a furry red worm.
I bought the scarf with three things in mind. First, I know that one day I will have the perfect outfit to wear it with, and when I do, finally, need an oversized red scarf to complete a look, I will have the ideal one. Second, I mean, it’s Helmut Lang. And third, when I tried it on in the store mirror as a gag, a stranger told me I had to buy it. And I always listen to strangers when they tell me to make a silly purchase that I secretly already know I want.
To me, the Helmut Lang scarf is indicative of the treasures one might discover at this specific UWS Housing Works. If your goal is to buy something with a big fashion name attached (and at a reduced price), this is the store where you may just stumble into something you actually recognize from the pages of Vogue. I imagine the residents of tall towers flanking Central Park swinging by to drop off big bags of dusty Dior, last season’s Lanvin, and moth-eaten Mugler. I once even witnessed someone donate a sketch they claimed was an original Chagall.
The Columbus Avenue Housing Works’ sister on 96th and Broadway, on the other hand, is consistently home to a different type of second hand delight; those labeless, one-of-a-kind articles of clothing that were originally purchased at stores which no longer stand or which, if you’re truly lucky, were handmade by someone’s great-grandmother (or maybe their great-grandmother’s tailor). Thick cable-knit cardigans, old ball gowns, and sparkly multi-colored women’s suit jackets are regular finds here, as well as all the tchotchkes you could dream of to fill your Curio cabinet with. You also have a pretty good shot at buying an actual Curio cabinet here.
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As a resident of the Upper West Side’s more northern and western corners, it is at the 96th Street Housing Works that I learn what my neighbors have been wearing, or at least what they once have worn. As I cycle into my closet what they have cycled out, I enjoy a sense of continuity and connection between us. Similarly, when I see on Housing Works’ hangers something I myself donated, I feel a sense of accomplishment; my taste has been deemed worthy of curation.
It has yet to happen to me that someone stops me on the street to say, “I think that jacket used to be mine,” but wouldn’t that be fun? After all, life is one big clothing swap, and you have as many chances to give away something someone else will fall in love with as you do to find your own Helmut Lang scarf.
This is a lovely piece but there is a distressing omission. As its website says, Housing Works “fights for funding and legislation to ensure that all people living with HIV/AIDS have access to quality housing, healthcare, HIV prevention, and treatment, among other lifesaving services.” It has done so for more than three decades. It has a bookstore and thrift locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. I encourage everyone who can to support Housing Works through donations of money or goods, volunteering, and activism. There’s much more information on their website at http://www.housingworks.org
The Columbus Ave location used to have treasures waiting to be discovered. These days it seems pretty picked through and whittled down. Ordinary objects (ie cheap wine glasses) may be priced at original cost and extraordinary objects (ie Italian pottery) are few and far between. I still donate here but rarely look around.