Historic Garment District Saved

CORRECTION AND EDITOR'S NOTE APPENDED

The Hollywood bright-lights, penny-pinching students, and vintage-clothing lovers who frequent the Garment District can all sigh with relief due to a recent compromise between storeowner Christopher Cassel and the city of Cambridge.

Earlier this year, the self-proclaimed “alternative department store” was in jeopardy of losing its crumbling, pink-brick home on 200 Broadway St. and being replaced with condominiums. A desirable piece of property lucratively plopped between MIT and a residential area, the Garment District plot had been eyed by developers as a prime location for expansion amid Cambridge’s booming real-estate market.

After seven months of negotiations, Cassell and business partner Tani Halperin agreed to sell the piece of land on Harvard St. behind the Garment District building to the city for $2.9 million—an extremely profitable deal for the partners since Cassell had originally bought the entire Garment District lot for only $3.4 million. Cassell and Halperin will be keeping the majority of their land for the store. The proceeds from the sale will fund much-needed renovations to the 115-year-old textile factory building, saving the Garment District from falling off Cambridge’s list of unique haunts.

The recent deal has also preserved the “family” of Garment District associates, according to Monique Machado, 25, a two-year employee at the Garment District.

“There are a lot of loyal customers. There’s a family within the people who work here, but that family also extends to the customers,” Machado said. “There are so many people who’ve been coming for years and years. It’s just a part of the culture in Cambridge.”
Ann Russell, 17, is one of those faithful customers. Although her home is in Cape Cod, roughly 100 miles away, Russell makes the trip to Cambridge nearly every weekend to shop at the Garment District for “all the cheap vintage stuff,” she said. Even as she dug through the racks of vintage, used, and name-brand clothes, she was already wearing a cotton, 70s-era housedress that she bought from the Garment District just the weekend before.
Unlike Una’s in the Square and other small, used-clothing shops, the Garment District is an enormous two-story “department store” with a 40-person staff that processes 40,000 pieces of clothing through its system each day. Sorting, pressing, and steaming takes place right on the factory premises. The Garment District, Inc. also runs a consignment department in their building and a cybershop through their website, www.garmentdistrict.com.
Besides selling vintage and used clothes, the Garment District has also expanded its business to selling books, CDs, records, jewelry, costumes, and a variety of other accessories. The Harvard Storytime Players buy many of their costumes and materials from the Garment District for their productions.
“The selection of stuff, the variety, and the amount,” said Machado, gesturing to the clothes stuffing every nook and cranny of the store, ranging in style from the 50s through the 80s. “We get a lot of people coming in for parties, mostly on weekends, like every weekend, for 80s parties, 60s parties—a lot of students.”
Others flock to the Garment District just for the sake of preserving their wallets.
“It’s cheap,” Paul Birkner, 17, said simply, grinning as he sorted through a bin of clothes marked: “T-shirts: $1, Sweats: $2.” Located at the back of the store on the first floor is Dollar-a-Pound, where customers wade through mountains of clothes and accessories, picking and choosing merchandise to stuff into huge plastic bags that are sold by weight. (Although, contrary to its name, articles are actually sold for $1.50 a pound.)
Whether it is because of its selection or its prices, the funky vintage store seems to have done well. It has certainly made a name for itself. Casey Affleck told Elle Magazine that his “shopping circuit” included the Garment District for vintage clothes, and Seventeen Magazine announced that “Kirsten Dunce shops here!” The store has also won numerous prizes, including Rolling Stone’s Best Clothes Store, Citysearch’s Best Vintage Clothing 2001, and ThePhoenix.com’s Best Store for Used Clothing 2001.
All awards and honors well-deserved, according to Sarah Pawapower of Boston. A pro at vintage shopping, she also frequents Una’s and Brimfield. But the Garment District stands out, she said. “There’s something for everyone. You’ll see people my age, your age, older,” Pawapower said.
Although she had been unaware of the Garment District’s potential closing, she sees its survival as the survival of her own style. “They still have vintage,” Pawapower explained. “And there’s vintage for me versus vintage for you.” She would know. She has been shopping regularly at the Garment District since it opened in 1986.
On top of selling cheap clothes, the Garment District also runs a continual do-good mission. Their website proudly proclaims that the Garment District “is committed to the mission of being an ethical recycling company which offers high quality clothing for any taste.” Their claim of being “an ethical recycling company” is not just talk. Each year, The Garment District, Inc. processes millions of pounds of clothing, much of which is purchased from charity organizations who need the revenue. Only about a third of the clothes are tagged for sale. The Garment District sends the rest to developing countries.
Even as he sells the plot behind the store building, Cassel is ensuring that his philanthropy will continue. The city will contract with CASCAP Inc., a private nonprofit land developer to build approximately 32 units of affordable housing. Construction will start next spring.
—Staff writer April B. Wang can be reached at abwang@fas.harvard.edu.

EDITOR'S NOTE

The Feb. 1 news article, "Historic Garment District Saved," mischaracterized the terms of a real estate deal between a Kendall Square vintage-clothing store, the Garment District, and a local affordable housing and social services provider, CASCAP.

 

The article said that the deal was "extremely profitable" for the Garment District's president, Christopher Cassell, and real estate developer Tani Halperin.

 

While Halperin said in a phone interview last week that "there is no doubt that this is a profitable deal" for the Garment District, upon further investigation by The Crimson, the Feb. 1 article's unambiguous assertion that the deal was "extremely profitable" for Cassell cannot be verified.

 

Cassell and Halperin purchased a plot of land at 200 Broadway for $3.4 million last May, according to both men. Also last spring, Cassell purchased an adjacent plot at 125-7 Harvard Street for $1.5 million.

 

Due to a disagreement over development plans, Cassell and Halperin agreed to end their partnership in November, with Cassell buying out Halperin's 50-percent stake in the 200 Broadway property.

 

Last month, CASCAP purchased the entire 125-7 Harvard Street plot and about a quarter of the 200 Broadway plot from Cassell for $2.9 million, according to Cassell and CASCAP's chief executive, Michael Haran.