Vendor carves out modest niche in shadow of wealth

At the start of this iffy holiday season, a well-dressed woman in her late 50s stopped by Grace Gardner’s fair-trade clothes and accessories stand at 18th and Walnut and, without the usual shopper’s deliberation, began picking out the things she wanted.

“I’ll take one of those and one of these, that one over there, and this one,” the customer said. Gardner, thrilled, worked to keep up, harvesting the goods from her display. Elfin-green and sugar-pink hand-knitted mittens from Nepal; rainbow-striped hand-loomed belts and bags from Guatemala; nubbly cotton jackets from California; woolly baby hats, dangly earrings, and woven backpacks from Peru and Ecuador.

“She told me to total up the bill and that she’d pay when she was finished in there,” Gardner recalls, nodding toward the Anthropologie store right behind her.

As the woman turned to leave, Gardner called out, “Wait! Don’t you want to know what all this costs?”

“Oh! Sure. Tell me. How much?”

The woman had racked up a $250 tab.

It was a good day.

Gardner, a single mother who became a vendor in 1975, has lived through recessions before. Good times and bad, she has earned her modest living on this prime piece of real estate turf across from the highest-rent district in the city by attracting customers from across the economic spectrum.

In the last dozen years, since Anthropologie set up shop in the Van Rensselaer mansion, Gardner says, she has benefited from the accidental partnership: “The tourists always want to go in there, and on the way, they find me.”

In some ways, Gardner’s feisty little business serves as a symbolic counterpoint to her high-end hipster neighbor. Over the years, she says, she has occasionally crossed paths with Richard Hayne, who started his Urban Outfitters empire, which includes Anthropologie stores, with a small shop in West Philadelphia about the time she began. Like Hayne, Gardner says, she values the culture and crafts from Third World countries. And both attract customers who have an eye for authenticity.

But the enterprises have evolved on different scales. Hayne’s net worth is estimated at $1.8 billion. Gardner makes just enough to support herself and her son and keep her 23-year-old Ford Econoline running.

She’s happy with her lower price point. “My feeling is, make it for the majority, not the minority,” she says. “Keep everybody going.”

During a lunch break last week, she picked up an egg sandwich at LeBus and went back to her stand to eat it while tending to her customers. She had bundled herself in a bulky charcoal wool sweater and fuzzy fingerless gloves from her inventory. With cat-green eyes blinking out from under a fleece hat and a long gray braid skimming her waist, she radiates a hippie Earth mother’s gentleness with a survivor’s grit.

She grew up in Fairmount, the only daughter of a single mother who supported them both as a waitress. After studying mental health and social services at a community college, Gardner took a trip to Ecuador. She started importing sweaters and selling them on the streets of Philadelphia, gradually expanding her contacts throughout Central America.

Now 59, she has been around long enough to become a fixture in the Rittenhouse Square scene. Before she could finish her sandwich, she was interrupted twice by friends from the neighborhood.

Gail Crane rolled by on her scooter, decorated with a giant gold jingle bell, to hand Gardner the $20 she owed for the feathered headband.

A gift?

“For me,” Crane said. “Enough of this Christmas stuff!”

“It’s early,” said Gardner, reassuring her friend that generosity is contagious. “Eventually, the Christmas spirit will rock you.”

A little later, Bill Conklin came by to check on Gardner. Conklin, a lawyer who represents insurance companies, helped her several years ago when her van was stolen.

“Tell the story, Grace,” he nudges. “It’s a good one.”

“It was a Friday the 13th,” she says. About 6 p.m. when she was about to disassemble her stand, a man jumped into the Econoline’s driver’s seat and took off. As she chased after him, yelling, “Call the police! He’s stealing my van!” about 20 people joined her in pursuit. The thief rammed into a construction fence but kept going until he was stuck in traffic.

“I catch up to the van,” she says, “and a taxi driver, this tall burly guy, I think he might have been Russian, gets out of his cab, pulls the guy out, and shoves him against the wall. Next thing I know, five cop cars show up.”

Conklin and another lawyer from the area, who witnessed the drama, later helped Gardner press charges.

“This is a lawyer neighborhood,” she says. “Thank God.”

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