Not to be outdone by the twice-yearly competition from the Woodstock-New Paltz Art & Crafts Fair, venerable New Paltz retail institution Handmade and More chose the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the store — which, according to vintage flyers on display, actually opened its doors at 6 North Front Street on March 1, 1975. A huge turnout of crafts store patrons gathered to share food, drink, live jazz and reminiscences in the upstairs Clothing Department/Handmade at Home, where displays of merchandise had been shoved back to clear a dance floor.
It was fitting that spirited dancing should be an integral component of the party, since, during Handmade’s early years, the upstairs space housed a studio for dance and exercise classes known as the Dancing Theatre. And it was clear from the tenor of the festivities that in the memory of many Paltzonians past and present, this building is as much a shrine to the performing arts as it is to fine artisan wares. Handmade founder Ann Rodman, her successor Marge Mustello and current owner Melinda Minervini were all on hand to welcome fans of the crafts store; but it was Dancing Theatre founder Brenda Bufalino who held center stage.
As light on her feet at age 77 as she was 40 years ago, when she sparked the modern American tap dance revival by bringing her old mentor Honi Coles and his compatriots the Copasetics out of retirement to perform at SUNY New Paltz and the Academy Theatre, Bufalino made the floorboards resound above Handmade along with many of her former students on Sunday, accompanied by the Bernstein Bard Trio. “When Ann [Rodman] and I started here, everything was possible,” Bufalino recalled of the joint enterprise’s early years. “The whole community danced and played music, and they did it here.” Noting that Handmade was “the first gift shop in town,” she added, “It’s beautiful, because it stays in the community.”
Rodman got the idea of opening a store showcasing locally handcrafted items after 20 years of running a children’s camp in Gardiner with her husband Karl. “We loved it, but didn’t want to keep doing it forever,” she recalled. “Brenda [Bufalino] and I were best friends, and we started developing pie-in-the-sky ideas of what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives…She would do dance lessons, and I would sell the work of my friends who were craftspeople.” The original plan was to open a shop in Gardiner, but eventually the Rodmans decided that New Paltz was a riper site to invest in a new business.
With its emphasis on quality handcrafted items, Handmade was an instant success with townies and tourists alike. Even today, it’s a magnet for people shopping for tasteful, original gifts, and a tough place to leave without purchasing (or at least pining over) a lovely little something for yourself. Ann Rodman ran the store successfully for nearly 20 years, handing it off to Mustello in 1994. Minervini, who took over in 2009, was one of Rodman’s original employees and actually began working with her at Camp Thoreau. “I’ve worked here for about 40 years — I am the continuity!” she noted. Over the years and under three different management regimes, the business has “really developed,” Minervini said, but has “always maintained the same type of positive energy.”
The late lamented Dancing Theatre did not fare as well, alas. Susan Slotnick, who took the helm from Bufalino after its first few years, recollected, “When the Dancing Theatre was in its heyday, there were no health clubs around, no Pilates, no yoga. Our classes were packed. But when the health club craze came in, the classes got very small…People stopped wanting to learn something while they exercised.” The artistic dance training that the studio offered “didn’t end,” according to Slotnick; “It just went underground.”
Looking back, Slotnick noted the “careers that were launched here that went on to bigger places,” like her own ongoing work with prison populations and artist-in-residence relationships with several school districts. “That’s something positive.” Bufalino’s former student Bonnie MacLeod, who now lives in the Adirondacks but came back to town for the anniversary celebration, is another example. “The Dancing Theatre was really the incubator for me for all things creative. It changed the way I look at the world and gave me skills that I’ve used for my entire life,” MacLeod said.
The upstairs space at 6 North Front Street became the Clothing Department at Handmade in 1987, and today offers fine linens and home furnishings as well. Handmade and More is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Isn’t it time that you stopped back in and checked out what’s new in stock? Besides, you can never own too many pairs of earrings… Call (845) 255-6277 for more information.