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5 Star Stories: Women’s Exchange of Memphis ‘helping others help themselves’

Published: Mar. 23, 2022 at 6:42 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - It’s only appropriate that this 5 Star Story is all about women during the month of March, which is also Women’s History Month. The Woman’s Exchange of Memphis is one of the longest-running nonprofits in the city and can add the likes of novelist Louisa May Alcott as a former member. And it’s become of the city’s most beloved for many reasons with a mission of “helping others help themselves.”

One of the things people love about the Exchange is lunch. All you have to do is ask almost anyone who’s eaten in the “Tea Room” on Racine in Binghampton, and they’ll probably tell you there’s no better lunch spot in the city.

Emmanuel “Rev” Bailey has been the chef there for 24 years, cooking up tasty morsels that people rave about.

“You know, I ain’t putting down fast food but, the best thing to eat these days is Southern cooking from way back,” said Bailey. “And that’s what we try to fix here -- the old-fashioned way of cooking.”

He’s a bit of a celebrity, too -- so much so that when he’s not cooking, he can usually be found holding court with customers and telling jokes.

“Well, it feel great! But I always tell ‘em it’s just not only Rev! Got a crew back here that help, plus the volunteers that stand by,” said Bailey. “We work as a team to keep everything functioning here.”

The Woman’s Exchange movement began in Philadelphia in 1832. The Woman’s Exchange of Memphis opened in 1885 with the same purpose -- to help women provide for their families. As Marcia Anthony, president of the Memphis Exchange described, “In 1832 when they started, women didn’t have a lot of rights and you needed very much the dependence on a man. And so if something happened to their husband or if he got sick or if he died, they were kind of left at the mercy of a family member that was a male.”

Today, the Exchange continues to show and sell the handiwork of hundreds of Mid-South consigners -- like the colorful scarves of Ruchika Seth, whose first trunk show at the Exchange helped revive her business.

”Which was a hit -- like a super hit -- after two years off COVID that show was like bringing back me into business,” she said.

Also in “The Shop” where Ruchika’s scarves hang, you’ll find handcrafted toys, mementos, sweaters, as well as pottery & kitchenware, cards, hand-made jewelry and more.

DeeDee Laughlin manages “The Shop” and about 420 consignors.

”And you come in and shop, it helps others and that’s our mission and it makes everyone happy,” explained Laughlin.

For 75 years, “The Sewing Room” at the Woman’s Exchange has provided heirloom-quality hand-sewn children’s clothing -- created by seamstresses from around the Mid-South. Sandy Moore, the current manager, was once herself, a seamstress in need of supplemental income.

”I had one child who had some issues at school with learning disability and stuff and I wanted to stay home and take care of her and be there when she needed,” said Moore. “So, to supplement my income I became a seamstress with the Woman’s Exchange and did it for many, many years.”

Now, Sandy enjoys the opportunity to work with customers in “The Sewing Room” to create one-of-a-kind outfits.

“So you’re not walking into a showroom seeing 10 of the same dresses or in Sunday school,” she said. “So we try to do each dress individually to the customers’ need.”

For most of the Exchange’s more than 150 volunteers, there are few places they’d rather be than joyfully waitressing in “The Tea Room” or fundraising for the organization. Take Jean Lewis, whose great grandmother was one of the Woman’s Exchange founders.

“We all come from different backgrounds, different walks of life and my best friends are now Woman’s Exchange members. And it’s just a magical happy place. And love when new people walk in the door,” Moore exclaimed.

But most importantly, the Woman’s Exchange of Memphis provides a way for seamstresses, craftsmen, artisans and consignors to sell their wares many of whom are the members’ own family, like Anthony’s own grandmother who after becoming a widow, lost her hearing and was in need of a way to occupy her time.

“(She) spent probably the next 20 years making the rompers and the day gowns and the lingerie cases and the bed jackets for the Woman’s Exchange. And it kept her busy, she just loved working with the fabrics that they provided,” said Anthony. “So, I saw the benefit of the Woman’s Exchange giving her dignity and great joy.”

For more information about becoming a volunteer member, upcoming events or the Woman’s Exchange of Memphis, in general, visit weofmemphis.org/.

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