Author Stephanie Lehmann sews together pieces of the past to create a patchwork of the present
Vintage clothing has never been this modern. Stephanie Lehmann’s newest novel, Astor Place Vintage, engenders a new appreciation for the rich history that we walk past every day. Her protagonist Amanda, who owns a vintage clothing shop in the East Village, discovers the journal of Olive, a woman who worked at Siegel-Cooper department store at the turn of the century. The story lures us into the intriguing world of the store, which played a large role in the liberation of women. It also revisits the era when Penn Station was just a dirt pit, there was an elevated 6th Avenue railway, and Madison Square Garden was actually on Madison Avenue.
Why did you choose to base the novel around clothing?
Well, I’ve always loved vintage clothing. A book that inspired me was The Ladies Paradise by Zola. In that novel, a young woman goes to Paris penniless and gets a job as a shopgirl in a big department store, Le Bon Marche, which is sort of considered the first department store. I’ve always loved the architecture known as the Ladies’ Mile. The buildings that are still there used to be the grand, old department stores. That all fit together to set the book in New York at the turn of the century, when department stores were the big thing.
You set the scene around this importance of department stores.
Department stores were the first place where women were welcome and even encouraged to get out of the house and come and spend! They were still very popular in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. It’s amazing how many people connect- still today – to department stores. My editor, who is in her 20s, said, “Can you expand a little more on why Amanda thought department stores were so great?” Cause she didn’t totally get it. [Laughs]
Your character, Olive, works at Siegel-Cooper department store in the early 1900s. What did you learn about that store after you researched it?
It was humungous. It went from 17th-18th Streets from 6th Avenue to 5th Avenue. It took the entire square block. It was a city within a city. It had an art gallery, an auditorium where they would have fashion shows, restaurants, a soda water fountain, pet store, and post office. A ladies’ lounge – where you could actually lounge. [Laughs] I also found out that the owner, Mr. Siegel, went so overboard, having it have everything, that he went out of business in 1915.
Your present-day character, Amanda, owns a vintage clothing store. Which ones do you recommend in the city?
It depends if you’re looking for high-end or low-end. In my recent travels, I went to one down in the East Village, No Relation Vintage. It had such cheap prices and racks of stuff from the ‘60s, 70s, and ‘80s. On the high end, there’s a shop called Manhattan Vintage. They have beautiful stuff.
You moved to New York from San Francisco to attend NYU. In the book, you mention that NYU is taking over many historical buildings. What do you think about that?
I think it’s terrible! The East Village is constantly changing. It seems like every time I go down there, there’s a new high-rise. I never got to live in an NYU dorm. I was in a disgusting tenement which inspires the tenement that Angelina [a character] lives in.
You mention the Shirtwaist Fire building that NYU now owns.
Yes, it’s still there because it was only the top two floors that burned. As Amanda says in the book, I always wonder if the students who go to classes in that building ever think about the fact that they’re in the same building where that horrible tragedy happened.
To do research, you went to the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street.
That’s an amazing place. They have different apartments set up from different decades, so it’s like time-machine traveling.
I think this book would make a great movie. Who would you want to play Amanda and Olive in the film adaptation?
I like Anne Hathaway as Amanda. I picture her that way. Jennifer Lawrence would make a fun Olive. It would be a challenge for her to be more prim and proper.
I read a lot of this book while I was in Italy and was happy to see some of the main characters be Italian immigrants.
In Italy, they really loved the book, and right away bought Italian rights. I love the Italian culture and consider myself an honorary Italian. I’m from San Francisco, where there was a whole Italian population. I went through all the nationalities that lived on the Lower East Side – which was practically all of them – and Italian just felt right. And it was fun for Olive to fall in love with a handsome Italian guy.
Who would play that handsome Italian guy?
I interviewed Adrian! He’s so cute.
He’s not Italian, but he’ll pass.
Stephanie will be speaking at the 92 Y on Sept 18th, www.92y.org/Event/Astor-Place-Vintage.aspx
To learn more about the novel, visit www.astorplacevintage.com
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