My mother was a talented seamstress so for the earlier part of my childhood most of my clothes were homemade. She loved embroidering tiny flowers and animals on dress pockets, basting collars and hand-sewing French hems. This was the late sixties and early seventies and downtown parents had two choices in clothing for kids: shopping for the cheap polyester items to be found along Fourteenth Street or taking the subway uptown to Macy’s, B. Altman’s or Bloomingdale’s, to spend a fortune on high quality clothing. A good friend of my father’s gave me an impractical article of clothing from B. Altman’s every Christmas and I remember the joy of getting to go exchange it for something exquisite and equally impractical. Foremost in my memory was returning a very lacy set of pajamas for an orange go-go dress when I was in second grade. But aside from these occasional jaunts uptown, my mother could not afford to shop for my sister and me in any of these stores on the money my father made as a wood carver, a carpenter and often all around handy man.
Then our next door neighbor – mother of two boys, one of whom went on to form the famed Beastie Boys, but no, we never played together – opened a little shop on West 10th Street called Gee the Kids Need Clothes. Most of the merchandise was second-hand, refurbished with cool patches that said things like “Keep On Truckin'” and “Peace” as well as swatches of calico and velvet. I am sure my first pair of real Levis came from that store, as about the only thing my mother didn’t make herself was socks, underwear, and the occasion red polo shirt. I remember the interior was painted a bright yellow, and there was probably a mural or at least stencils of some sort decorating the walls. It had that happy sunny kid-friendly feel, and how I loved going in to try on clothes.
Best of all was the official “Gee the Kids Need Clothes” T-shirt. It pictured an outline of a little boy from the back, in a Paddington style hat. The name of the shop arched around the child – I’m now convinced it was a boy – and the words Greenwich Village sat below his feet. I had two – royal blue with white writing and yellow with orange. My mother still has one put away in a box labeled “Chris’s Favorites”. I don’t remember how long the shop survived during the tumultuous seventies. It doesn’t seem like it was very long. I know the family moved out of their house and there was talk of a divorce. I remember my mother being sad the shop was closing.
There were no Gap kids and Old Navy’s back then, there were barely any chain stores in Greenwich Village. I was well into elementary school before the first McDonald’s opened near the West Fourth Street basketball courts.
But I can tell you of at least four drugstores with soda fountains whose owners sold you a bottle of Coke syrup when you had the stomach flu. People who owned townhouses hadn’t paid a million dollars for them. Most paid less than a hundred thousand. I don’t know how a family like mine could ever live in New York City now let alone the Village. And I know for a sure a shop like Gee the Kids Need Clothes could never open in the West Village. But I’m a mother myself now, and my sewing machine sits idle in the basement. I bought it second hand when I was in college with the best intentions, but the needle just moved too fast and I feared my fingers would end up attached to something other than my hand. I suppose a good amount of my mother’s hard work was based on our need at the time. And I’ll admit to you that I have no problem shopping at Gap Kids and Gymboree. But I also know when the stomach flu strikes I’d be hard pressed to find a bottle of Coke syrup in this town.