Holiday pop-up breathes new life into Women's Exchange

Amanda Yeager
Contact ReporterBaltimore Sun Media Group
Founded in the 1800s and closed last year, the Woman's Industrial Exchange has emerged as a pop-up shop.

When the Woman's Industrial Exchange was founded in 1880, it created a platform for Civil War widows and other women in need of an income to sell handiwork such as quilts, hats and dresses to support themselves and their families.

More than a century later, the nonprofit, renamed as the Women's Exchange, is trading in tea cozies for soy candles, handmade soaps and a cornucopia of other locally crafted goods with a pop-up store in its retail space on North Charles Street in Mount Vernon.

The "Made-In-Baltimore" shop is a collaboration with the Industrial Arts Collective, a group devoted to local artisanship and craft manufacturing. The shop launched Nov. 20 and will be open throughout the holiday season on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, as well as Thursday, Dec. 3, to coincide with the lighting of the Washington Monument on Mount Vernon Place.

The pop-up is part of a drive by the Women's Exchange to reinvent itself a year after it closed its gift shop and fabled dining hall.

"We knew we needed to update the shop," said Heather Bradbury, vice president of the organization board. "We're moving forward with this model and seeing if it works for us."

The exchange was founded by Mrs. G. Harmon Brown, a Baltimore resident who aspired to launch a nationwide movement to help women earn a living without having to work at a factory or in other jobs considered "less respectable" at the time. The organization moved to its current space, a five-story brick building that had been a boarding house, in 1887.

A shop was added next to the entrance around 1900, and for years, the exchange ran a consignment store and served food in its dining hall, which came to be known as a meeting place for politicians, newspaper reporters and well-to-do women in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

People came for chicken salad, deviled eggs and tomato aspic, a wobbly combination of tomato juice, gelatin and spices. Waitresses were as well-known as the lunch spot — one retired at age 92 — and the hall was used as a scene set in the 1993 film "Sleepless in Seattle."

"It really was a polite place to come and very Baltimore," Bradbury said.

After decades of declining traffic, the organization closed the dining hall and consignment shop in the summer of 2014 while it reassessed operations.

The shop in particular "was dated, very antiquated," Bradbury said. "We had to really change, step in with the times."

The pop-up concept fit with that desire to appeal to a 21st-century crowd and incorporate a broad base of artisans. The exchange reached out to the Industrial Arts Collective, which formed a year ago and hosted a first pop-up at the D Center on North Avenue in August.

The collective is promoting a "Made in Baltimore" initiative, hoping to expand retail space for local craft manufacturers, said co-organizer Sarah Templin.

Templin, who sells hand-painted fabrics through her business, Radica Textiles, said there's a perception that there's "no more manufacturing in Baltimore," but in fact local manufacturing is still plentiful in a downsized version — smaller manufacturers with 10 employees or fewer.

Giving a space for handcrafted goods from those local manufacturers harks back to the origins of the Women's Exchange, said Bradbury.

"It's so funny how much the original foundation of the exchange is starting to come back," she said. "It started as a kind of pop-up."

The holiday shop includes the works from more than 80 artisans, including many with Baltimore- and Maryland-themed items, including "beer-view mirrors" made of Natty Boh bottle caps and "Old Bay Thy Father" crab mallets.

In this resurrection, Women's Exchange vendors are both women and men — even before the pop-up, the exchange had been opening programs to men who share its vision, Bradbury said.

The organization has other plans, including expanding educational workshops in its ample space. Jack and Zach Food, an organic lunch counter, rents kitchen and restaurant space in the building. 

Bradbury says the exchange hopes to open seasonal pop-up shops if the holiday venture proves successful.

Already, she said, "we've had such an amazing outpouring of affection. It's really breathed some fresh air into the building."

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