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Liberty House to Close Next Month After Nearly 50 Years on Upper West Side

By Nicole Levy | April 18, 2017 11:05am
 The Morningside Heights shop selling handmade gifts from around the world saw a dive in sales in 2016.
Liberty House
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MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — Gift givers searching for the one-of-a-kind imported items like Japanese tea cups, West African masks and Punjabi chests will have to hunt elsewhere when the longtime specialty shop Liberty House officially closes its doors next week.

The shop, which has been in the neighborhood for about five decades, is ending its nearly 20-year run at 2878 Broadway after its bottom line took a huge shot in the middle of last year and as brick-and-mortar businesses have an increasingly difficult time competing with internet retail giants, co-owner Cathy Hawkins and employee Amy Mosedale explained.

”For almost three month, on a daily basis, I’ve been experiencing how upset people are that we’re closing," Hawkins, 74, who shares ownership of Liberty House with partner Martha Faibisoff, said last week. "It’s been wonderful, but it’s just been very stressful."

Cathy Hawkins

Wearing a pair of earrings and a scarf once sold in her shop, Liberty House co-owner Cathy Hawkins stands among her merchandise (Credit: DNAinfo/Nicole Levy)

On a recent weekday afternoon, a steady flow of older customers streamed in to browse the store's thinning offerings and give their condolences as Hawkins and seven staffers tended to their requests, as well as relocating stock to private apartments and doing remaining office work.

"It was our go-to place to get gifts. Everyone in the family came here," said Upper West Side resident and longtime customer Eileen Fogarty, whose first purchase was an antique kimono with a lifted hem.

"If you were at all interested in the larger world, and you didn’t want something run-of-the-mill, it was interesting stuff," added Fogarty, a shopper at Liberty House since before its days at the intersection of Broadway and West 112th Street.

The city's first Liberty House opened at 343 1/4 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in 1966. As the New York retail outlet for the Poor People's Cooperation, a Mississippi-based black co-op marketing mostly local crafts, the independently operated store sold children's clothes, leather shoulder bags, quilts and civil rights-themed songbooks, among other goods.

By the time Hawkins began volunteering as a salesperson at Liberty House, the franchise had relocated to the northeastern corner of Broadway and 84th Street. The store left the PPC collective shortly before Hawkins and a partner bought the business in 1973. Nonetheless, its new owners strived to honor its founding philosophy by buying a significant portion of their handmade merchandise from co-ops.

Hawkins' store cycled through partners and locations over the years, eventually landing at its current site, which is owned by Columbia University, in May 1998.

The business enjoyed its heyday in the mid-'90s, before online sales began to take a toll on revenues, according to Mosedale.

Midway through 2016, sales took a permanent dive that she attributed to "pre-election jitters and the post-reality terror." Hawkins and Faibisoff ultimately decided they couldn't afford to invest any additional money, to their landlord's dismay.

"I think it just got too scary," Mosedale said. "I think maybe if we were all a bit younger, we would have moved or tried to develop a website."

Liberty House will shutter for good on April 27, but the store won't turn away customers while employees pack up its contents through the 30th, she said. Items throughout the store — from jewelry and toys to women's clothing and exotic furniture with price tags in the thousands of dollars  — are on sale from 20 percent to 50 percent off.

“Getting out of here has been a major event," said Hawkins, who lives just a block away. 

"It was a store I put all my love and my attention to. And I think people got it and gave it back. They shopped."