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Store taps into legacy of goodwill

Women's network still giving back

OLD LYME, Conn. -- Joan Ryan readily admits that the Lyme Tree store, which opened in 1986, came very late to the national Woman's Exchange movement.

With roots stretching to 1832 and a legacy of helping women, the Woman's Exchange for more than a century provided women in America with a place to sell their handmade goods, sometimes secretly, and an income that often put food on their families' tables.

While the national movement started to wane in the mid-20th century and has seen dozens of stores across the country close, the Lyme Tree has survived.

From its bowls made of recycled scrap wood to knitted children's sweaters, the small consignment shop that Ryan helps run appears to have found its niche in the local market, said Margo Pope, president of the Federation of Woman's Exchanges.

"People still want handcrafted, handmade products," Pope said.

The Lyme Tree grosses about $70,000 annually and gives any profits to local charities. It has donated $16,000 since its inception.

Just as important, its directors say, the store has provided a place for local women to financially support their creative endeavors and has helped some of the more needy among them supplement their family incomes.

Lyme Tree's success has bucked the trend of poor sales, declining volunteer numbers, and shuttered stores that has plagued the Woman's Exchange movement.

The movement started in Philadelphia when a group of society women wanted a way for the less fortunate among their set, such as widows, to earn a living. It was socially unacceptable for women to work outside the home, especially society women, so many of the consignors to the first exchange store participated secretly.

More stores followed in other major cities, and after the Civil War, when many women were left widowed, the movement took off.

At one point in the 19th century, more than 100 exchange stores operated across the country under the umbrella of the Federation of Woman's Exchanges. Some were so popular they held luncheons so women could gather and socialize during their shopping excursions.

In more recent decades, exchange stores have declined, the victims of the explosion of designer clothing and goods, as well as the spread of department stores.

There are currently just 19 exchange stores across the country and after this summer there will be 18. In August, Pope said, an exchange store in Gloucester, Mass., will close because of rising rents and a lack of volunteers.

Lyme Tree was started by a group of local women who were looking for opportunities to volunteer and who had visited a Woman's Exchange store in New York City. It is only one of three exchange stores left in Connecticut.