After 127 Years, Things Change

In 1877, there were no coffee chains or designer shoe stores on Boylston Street. There were no sandwich shops, no traffic lights, no flower vendors. There was, however, the Shop at the Union.

The store started initially as a place where women could sell homemade products in effort to supplement their family income, as an alternative to working in factories. The Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (now called just the Women’s Union) was founded in 1877 by Dr. Harriet Clisby, one of the nation’s first female physicians. Its goal was to improve the living and working conditions of Boston’s immigrant working class. The Shop at the Union opened that same year. Today, the Women’s Union is one of the city’s foremost woman’s advocacy and service organizations. The Women’s Union offices are right next to the Shop.

“In 1877, this shop was one of the only ways women could make money outside of factories. It opened as a way for women to sell baked goods and handiworks,” says Barbara Trevisan, the Shop at the Unions communications representative.

The block of Boylston Street that houses number 356 now is a fitting mixture of expensive, modern, and old-fashioned. The sun shines only on one side of the street right before noon, which is why an independent flower vendor sets up his displays on the sidewalk right underneath the brassy golden swan statue. Brightly colored lilies, daisies and carnations, separately bound with rubber bands in slim black buckets, frame the expansive store windows. The glass panes are etched with the stores name and Women’s Union mottoes.

The makeshift flower shop is sporadic, but the golden swan has been the symbol of The Women’s Union for over 125 years. Representatives chose their symbol because the swan boats in nearby Boston Common started up that same year. Summer is peak season for the swan boats, which are still a major tourist attraction in Boston. Unlike the swan boats, the Shop at the Union will not be open after June.

Directly inside the Shop, an old-fashioned stand-up chalkboard announces in pastel chalk, “Welcome to the Shop at the Union. Select Merchandise 20-70% off!” It says nothing about a going out of business sale.

Today, the Shop at the Union features products by women artisans and women-run companies. The store has almost everything, divided into informal departments as best as it can. At first, it is overwhelming to the senses since there are rarely multiples of items. Everything needs to be examined at length, which would take hours. No display space goes unused in the Shop. The decor is an endearing yet peculiar mixture reminiscent of an upscale hotel, a market, and a modern department store.

There are shelves of original cards — some handmade — at the back right corner, under hand-drawn signs with the original pencil lines still visible. Next to the cards is a children’s section featuring items like a plush My First Purse and My First Briefcase to handmade, $30 baby ballerina tutus. Across the aisle is a small, women’s clothing section with silk pajamas, sportswear, and a hidden dressing room. Then there is the bridal section, with special accessories under a glass case in the very back of the store. Kathy Santino, a manager in her 30s, is there unfolding boxes.

“There are a lot of customers that come in who are very sad,” says Santino, of the Shops recently announced closing.

“There are a lot of regulars. People come from out of town to shop here,” she adds.

Santino has only worked at the Shop since November, but like every other employee she is well acquainted with its history. She points out a loft that used to be a cafe and knitting shop. It closed down years ago to make room for offices. Her very short hair is an unnatural red that calls attention to the tattooed design on her neck, covered by antique necklaces. She says she wanted to work for a non-profit, which is why she chose the Shop at the Union.

“They’re letting us know what openings are available in other parts of the organization,” says Santino as she stacks cardboard boxes discreetly behind the counter.

Antique-looking wooden furniture is spread throughout the shop, often serving as parts of displays. A mahogany shelf holds expensive candles and vases. A simple cart displays beaded coasters with cat faces, ceramic pet food bowls, and luxury dog shampoo.

Midwestern tourists Angie Stolp and Gayle Asche move between the sections silently, muttering the occasional, “Isnt this darling?” and, “Its so cute.” Stolp, from Washington, and Asche, from Oregon, came to tour Boston while their husbands attend an electrical engineering conference.

“This store was recommended by one of the ladies at the conference,” explains Stolp, who says she has never seen anything quite like it and likes the variety.

Kim Prager, a thin woman in her 40s with short, jet black hair, has been working at the store for 10 years. She bustles through the crowded shop, stopping only to stare occasionally at an idle employee.

“We have a sidewalk sale as soon as the weather gets nice,” says Prager, while walking away with boxes. She is too busy pushing racks and tables towards the front door to say anything else, and never mentions closing the Shop — or “the recent news” as the other employees call it.

The Shop has buyers who find its unique products at gift shows in New York City, but local artisans often pitch their ideas as well. The store is non-profit, so any profits from sales are supposed to go to supporting the Women’s Union programs, like its battered women’s shelter.

“The problem is, the Shop hasn’t been profitable,” explains Trevisan, who blames the economy. The Shop used to be a dependable fundraiser for the Women’s Union.

“A board of directors did research and decided the best thing was to move [the Women’s Union office, part of the Shop] and close. It’s no longer a career path for women,” she adds.

Trevisan says it is unlikely the Shop at the Union will ever reopen, especially since the other Women’s Union programs will not be impacted by its closing.

The golden swan statue has moved a handful of times over the past 127 years, with office upgrades and store relocations. It has been on different parts of Boylston Street, and up the block by the Four Seasons Hotel. The swan, along with the Women’s Union offices and the Shop at the Union, has been in its current location since 1977. The Shop and offices have already been sold to a realtor. The new Women’s Union location will not be decided until May. The swan will move with the administration, but will be separated from the Shop forever as of June.