holdouts

One of the Best Secondhand Stores in New York Is Run by a Staten Island Commune

“The radical-honesty thing was getting in the way of running a store.”

Photo: Google Maps
Photo: Google Maps

Ford Wheeler first went to Every Thing Goes in 1997. He was working as the production designer for James Grey’s first film, Little Odessa, and had heard from someone — he can’t remember who — that there was this vintage furniture store on Staten Island that had everything and for cheap. This proved true. “They had all kinds of stuff, and not just furniture,” he says. “Things anyone else would throw away. Curtains, sheets, dishes, old phones. They’d sell anything they got their hands on. But, you know, it was odd.” That oddness manifested in a variety of ways. Though the place was overflowing, it was exceptionally, unusually organized. “Every item was measured, placed in a plastic bag, and tagged,” he says. “They had a system to track the customers, too — every time you’d go upstairs, you’d hear ‘customer moving to floor two’ over a walkie-talkie.’” And the employees “had this policy about truth or straightforwardness. So, you know, any other place you could bargain. If you tried to bargain there, they get mad.”

All of which starts to make sense when you consider that Every Thing Goes is run by Ganas, the longest-running commune in New York, whose core values are truth-telling and recycling. The group of some 65 people lives across eight homes on a hilly, residential road on Staten Island’s North Shore, concealed by overgrowth and concrete walkways. They share expenses and meals —once a week, when one member returns from grocery shopping, the rest create a staggered chain from the house to the road to slowly work the week’s worth of food up into the pantry. Each morning, they meet for “feedback learning,” where they discuss each other’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings with complete, direct honesty. And then there’s the store, which has been open since 1983, Ganas’s second year of existence — and which is run by members who, in exchange, don’t have to pay the $920 rent the others do (and receive a monthly $200 stipend).

The store is actually three stores: Every Thing Goes Furniture, Every Thing Goes Gallery, and Everything Goes Cafe. All are painted bright green and yellow, and all three are on Victory Boulevard, a busy street in Brighton Heights otherwise populated with Mexican restaurants, storefront churches, and delis. The furniture store, according to store manager Brian Scully, who has worked there for the past 17 years, functions much the same way it did when it opened. “We have an ad in the Yellow Pages that says we’ll come remove things from your home,” he says. “Which is a big plus — I mean, if you have junk you want to get rid of, you’re going to pay $400 to get a junk-removal service to come pick it up. We’ll take it for free, and we’re going to keep it out of the landfill.” They do pickups five days a week, generally in Staten Island (though they will come to the other four boroughs occasionally, if requested) — from small apartments to megamansions on Howard Avenue. “We just load up the truck,” Scully says. “Usually it’s like 40 to 60 items per trip — we go for the furniture, but we’ll take the household stuff too, like pots and pans and knickknacks and clothing.”

Once they’re back at the store, an elaborate inventory process starts, during which every item — from an Eames chair to a golf club to a bundle of plastic plates — is measured, photographed, then given a label with a description and a lot number that corresponds with its eventual placement. All of that information goes into a database, so every employee knows exactly where every given thing is at any given time. A 12-by-12-inch painting of Mickey Mouse? That’s 117 2C — on the second floor of the furniture store, in other words. (That things are organized so completely is not entirely apparent — the Mickey Mouse painting sits atop a coffee table with a bread box, another smaller coffee table, and two lamp shades.)

Photo: Katy Schneider

Despite the sheer quantity of goods and the labor the employees put into organizing it, the stores only “pretty much break even,” Scully says. “We provide ourselves with jobs, it pays for the building taxes, we’re in the black.” Scully says that’s because the goal is to keep things cheap, ensuring a constant flow of supply (“We try to reduce waste by restoring and recycling whenever possible,” the group’s “About Us” page reads in green), and to make it accessible to the neighborhood. “I’m not trying to make the maximum off every piece, but it’s a balancing act,” says Scully.

It’s a balancing act both because the store helps support the entire operation — those eight houses and 65 people, the Friday-night dinners to welcome potential new members — and because Ganas doesn’t sell just to the neighborhood. In recent years, the clientele has become increasingly varied, and in response, their prices, which Ford says were once “dirt, dirt cheap,” have crept up. (Though proportionally: “When I get a vintage couch I know in Brooklyn or L.A. would sell for $3,000, I’ll sell it for $900,” Scully says.) Selling to movie and TV producers has become a substantial part of their business — pieces of theirs have shown up in everything from Jessica Jones to Madam Secretary. More recently, the Brooklyn vintage dealers have found them. “They come in and buy things and resell them,” he says. Another more recent part of their customer base: the surge of former Brooklynites who’ve moved to the North Shore in recent years, and who, accustomed to highly curated, cramped shops, are generally delighted by the modest prices and sprawl (so many stylish Staten Island locals recommended it to New York Magazine, in fact, that we included the shop in our “Best of New York” issue). “It’s a real hunt, but I’ve found some special lamps on occasion,” says the writer Molly Bruce Barton. Megan Joseph, an exhibition curator who moved to nearby Tomkinsville from Bed-Stuy, says she’s especially fond of the staff. “You know their name, they know yours. They circulate between the three stores. And if you go to any art event on the island, you’ll see them there, too,” she says. “One of the women, the managers — you’ll see her at the coffee shop, then at Staten Island Arts’ virtual events, then you’ll see her doing the composting at the farmers’ market on Saturday. These people are just entrenched in the cultural community here.”

While these newcomers are mostly all aware that the store is run by Ganas, and are aware that Ganas is a commune, they all say that — lately, at least — the store feels just like … a store. Which was not always the case. The whole point of opening the shops to begin with, according to member Jorge Caneda, was to create — as he put it in a 2014 interview with artist Caroline Woolard — “a new stage, a new gestalt to work on our relationships, on issues of hierarchy, issues of collaboration, on the issues of learning to deeply listen to what is meant — not what is said or heard: All our businesses had this objective.” Although the “About Us” page on the store’s site still emphasizes the importance of conflict resolution and communication (“We seek open and caring ways of relating to one another in which we regard problems as opportunities to work together. And we find that when we do put our minds together to solve problems we make better decisions”), Scully says in the last few years, it’s been more in the background. Because “the radical-honesty thing happening in the store was getting in the way of running a store.”

And though the idealistic, original goal was never to make a profit — just to provide work and income for new members — they’re finding they do, indeed, need to make money. Six years ago, Ganas’ financial situation became so dire that they were forced to put up a GoFundMe for their workers’ year-end bonuses. “Ganas is in a very tight spot in terms of cash flow,” the fundraiser read. “We cannot pay worker bonuses this year, and we cannot continue the unsustainable practice of borrowing to cover them.” So, the increase in prices. And over the summer, Scully set up an Instagram account. The pictures are low-fi (in some, you can see the shadow of the photographer, looming in front of, say, a satin couch). Each only gets a handful of likes — 5 on a picture of a dog cage (caption: “dog cage”), a high 13 on some Stacor flat-file drawers. “It’s been pretty good,” Scully says. “I sold some things to dealers in L.A., and even with shipping, they were still very happy with our prices. I know they’re selling our stuff for more. But it’s okay — I’m really just as excited about finding a chest of drawers that I can sell for $40 to someone who needs it.”

One of the Best Stores in New York Is Run by a Commune