Volunteering at the Fairfield Women’s Exchange
photography by Melani Lust
As a young Fairfield mother, Mary Bullard Rousseau was among the first volunteers to take a shift behind the counter at the Fairfield Women’s Exchange (FWE). She was just “looking for a little something to do” when a friend invited her to help to sell handmade crafts in the nonprofits’ quaint retail store, now nestled in downtown Southport.
The premise of the women’s exchange—a national network of nonprofits that purveys consigned goods made by women for the ultimate benefit of charity—spoke to Ms. Rousseau’s philanthropic spirit. “I loved the idea that we were helping other women sell their wares in a way that gave them dignity,” she says, “but I soon realized we were doing something for ourselves, too.”
For Ms. Rousseau—the matriarch of a storied Fairfield family that still inhabits the historic, thirty-five-room Jonathan Sturges “cottage”—that meant exploring her own artistic gifts. She began taking commissions to paint Fairfield’s handsome canine set, and then penned a series of charming children’s books, always sharing her profits with the exchange. At ninety-six, she no longer paints, but reproductions of her pet portraits can still be found on note cards in the FWE’s art department. (She remains its dutiful chairperson.) “I stop by at least once a week, straighten the rug and make sure the light is turned on at my table,” she says.
Ms. Rousseau’s devotion inspired two more generations of her family, beginning with daughters Polly Roessler and Lenie Epifano, to continue the tradition she began in 1962 as one of the FWE’s founding members. The latest to volunteer is her granddaughter (Lenie’s daughter), Mia Johnson, who enjoys occasional breaks from her toddler sons for shifts at the Pequot Avenue shop. Her enthusiastic picks of the store include the hand-knit “owl” trimmed baby sweaters and bottled salad dressings, which, she says, “fly off the shelf.”
“I’m fulfilling a promise I made to my grandmother when I was young to be part of this,” Johnson says. But the commitment isn’t one of those tedious familial obligations. “Inside,” she says, “I’m still that five-year-old girl running up to the fridge case in front of the cash register to see my grandmother and look at the cupcakes. I am that sentimental about the place.”
There’s plenty for the women devoted to the FWE’s efforts to be sentimental about these days. As the FWE marks its fiftieth anniversary, the Rousseau clan epitomizes what the nonprofit has meant to its loyal customers, volunteers and countless bene-factors, says Diane Conover, its immediate past president. The exchange’s legacy is impressive: Since its inception it has donated more than $1 million in charitable grants and more than $4 million to its consignors. These days “our emphasis is on helping start ups (nonprofits) that don’t have the benefit of endowments, name recognition or big galas,” says Conover. “We really like to give in a way that makes an impact.”
The local exchange remains part of a dwindling but still enterprising network that dates back to the pre-Civil War era, when the first women’s exchange opened in Philadelphia to create retailing opportun-ities for impoverished women. In keeping with that founding philosophy, after expenses, FWE consignors still receive 70 percent of their profits; the remaining goes to charity. Modernity—and a shortage of exceptional home crafters—have compelled exchanges to become more flexible and resourceful. The Fairfield chapter now sells some manufactured items, mouthwatering See’s chocolates and even a few things made by men. Its consigned antiques department, notable for some exquisite china and glassware, has loyal fans, including Martha Stewart. (When she lived in Westport, she is said to have scooped up vintage finds for the photos in her iconic cookbooks.)
Several years ago the FWE reluctantly stopped selling homemade tea sandwiches, baked treats and casseroles to comply with health-code regulations that prohibit selling foods not prepared in commercial kitchens. (But that doesn’t stop customers from still calling to ask for potpies or cakes.) “We’ve changed with the times, but we are also true to some of our traditions,” says Conover. All of its saleswomen still come from the ranks of its approximately eighty active volunteers. New members are always welcome.
“I think when people hear why we do what we do, and that all the money goes to charity, the things they find in the shop mean even more,” says Polly Roessler, who not only still gives her time to the FWE but is a consignor too. Like her mother’s pet portraits, her handmade hook rugs have become coveted baby gifts with generations of Fairfield families. And to top it all off, these gracious ladies still gift wrap!
About 100 friends and members of the Fairfield Women’s Exchange gathered in June at the Southport home of Chris and Louise Heasman to celebrate fifty years of charitable giving through enterprising retailing.
According to a history of the organization prepared by former Fairfield Women’s Exchange presidents Jan Perry and Marge Grey, the local exchange was founded in 1962 in a Victorian house on the Post Road by Edie Moore, a Fairfield resident, who learned about the novel retailing-for-charity concept while living in Greenwich, which had its own exchange. The store, with its stock of noshes, clothes and handmade goods, moved to the former Southport Post office in 1963.
At the height of the exchange federation’s movement there were some 200 such nonprofits in the United States. Fairfield’s still vibrant exchange is now one of only twenty.