rachel hirsch: reselling history
“I’ve always loved selling things. I was like Lucy from Peanuts.”
Rachel Hirsch [Intermediate Student ‘92-‘93, Faculty ‘98-‘02] says this as she sits behind the sales counter at History, a clothing store she opened with her brother last year in Cambridge.
“I’d walk to the nearest busy intersection and set up shop,” she says. “I used to sell my mom’s make-up. She’d go to use her mascara and it’d be gone because I sold it. If she bought cookies, they had to go on special shelves – ‘Not Allowed To Be Sold’ – because she would buy them, I would sell them, and then we’d have no cookies.”
Hirsch’s inclination for and natural gift with selling becomes apparent when customers enter the store. When she welcomes them, she is as much announcing their presence as her own. (“Hi, how are you!” she says, peaking over her giant converted receptionist’s desk. “Back here…Good, thanks…Yeah, [motioning to her dog, Johnny Cash] between the two of us, we cover the store.”)
Oftentimes, Hirsch carries on these conversations with her customers as they shop, and by the time they’re leaving, they and Hirsch will have exchanged names, handshakes, “See ya laters,” and a skirt or blouse for a bit of cash.
The store isn’t all that different from the stands Hirsch set up as a child. She again has positioned herself at a busy intersection – between Harvard and Porter Squares on Massachusetts Avenue. And though she no longer sells mom’s cookies, she is still selling her make-up and jewelry, along with the coats, dresses, jeans, blouses, and skirts of a hundred other women.
There is also no clutter. Instead of crammed closets, worn shag carpeting, and a pervasive smell of warm, stale air, History is open, tidy, and organized. With black-and-white tiled floors, vintage fashions separated by decade, and stylish red couches and a bookshelf by the dressing rooms, the store feels accessible, not overstuffed. In the front, a giant window stretches the width of the store, bringing in sunlight and window-shoppers from the street.
Hirsch says that she’s had the idea to open a store for as long as she can remember, its first incarnation coming to her when she was in second grade and, armed with a notebook and a set of pencils she had received as birthday presents, she drew up the business plan for a store.
“It would be open by kids and run by kids,” she says. “‘Kids’ being me.”
Hirsch admits that aside from knowing that it was going to be her store, the initial plan (as drawn up from her eight year-old mind) lacked some important specific details – for instance: what the store would sell.
Says Hirsch: “It was going to garner a lot of media attention, that’s all I had I decided.”
Hirsch took her interest in retail to New York City and Barnard College, where in addition to a majoring in history, she interned at a showroom in SoHo that showcased small, local fashion designers.
“I loved that store, and I loved learning about the business,” Hirsch says. “That got me ruminating on having my own store. For a long time, I thought it would be a jewelry store. I wanted to get into jewelry making, and I looked into that pretty seriously.”
Yet Hirsch got sidetracked. It happened, in fact, one day while she was crossing the street.
“I had this moment where I was crossing Broadway in New York City where it was like somebody spoke in my ear and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you went and taught for a couple years after you graduated?’ And I remember stopping in the median strip and saying out loud, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ I was like, ‘I don’t even care about teaching.’”
That night, Hirsch conducted a personal inventory. It was an attempt to set herself straight, to steer clear of the direction the voice was setting her down (and back towards being famous, making tons of money, and being first in line at Club USA). To her surprise, though, she discovered an interest in education that she had never noticed before.
“All of a sudden, I looked and it was like those Magic Eye paintings where I sort of relaxed enough and all these dots came together and said, ‘Education!’” Hirsch says. “And [working at] Explo really hammered it home because that’s where I was doing it with an awareness that that’s what I was doing.”
One summer at Explo turned into a second. By the end of the second year, she had accepted a teaching position at the Cambridge School of Weston. And after her second year, she returned for a third, then a fourth, then a fifth…
“The problem with Explo was I loved it,” Hirsch says. “I loved teaching. I loved kids. I totally loved it. It really ruined my fashion design plans.”
Hirsch spent the next seven years at the Cambridge School of Weston before leaving to open History. When she left, she was a department head (the history department, naturally), popular among her students (they still stop by her store regularly), but also feeling burnt-out.
“I was getting pretty tired – just literally tired,” Hirsch says. “I was waking up at 5:45 in the morning and going to bed pretty late grading papers and stuff. I’ve had burnt out, cranky teachers as a student, and I didn’t want to be that.”
Also, inspiration for the store she wanted to open had struck at last.
“One day, I don’t remember why, it just hit me,” she says. “I was like, ‘Ooh. I love vintage clothing, and I miss vintage shopping. I can only think of one vintage store I really like going to right now, which means I bet there’s room for more. I bet I could do this.’”
And so she’s done it. In the year and a half since History’s opening, Hirsch and her store have been featured in Boston Magazine and The Metro, as well as on Boston Globe columnist Miss Conduct’s “10 Things I Love About Boston” list. Most recently, the store received the Best of Boston 2007 award for women’s vintage clothing.
“I assume I’ll be a teacher again,” Hirsch offers, unsolicited. “I still think of myself as a teacher. I do this, and this is awesome, and this is who I am too, but…”
Hirsch trails off without finishing her thought. And before she can pick it back up, another customer enters the store. “Hi,” she says. “Feel free to look around…Be sure to show Johnny Cash some love.”