When the Bernie Sanders campaign announced in March that they would set up shop in the Gowanus neighborhood, many community members came out in droves to support him during the office’s opening and rally.
The Gowanus neighborhood began to “Bern,” culminating in a massive Prospect Park rally on April 17 two days before the New York State Democratic primaries. Bernie signs became a relatively common sighting in storefronts throughout the neighborhood.
However the store owners in the neighborhood vary in their political support. Susie Kurkowski threw her support towards Hillary Clinton.
Kurkowski, who owns the home decor and furnishings store Items of Interest (60 5th Avenue between Bergen Street and St. Marks Place) decided to take design matters into her own hands.
“I don’t really like the designs of Hillary’s campaign,” says Kurkowski. So she decided to design t-shirts of her own.
The t-shirts have two variations, emblazoned with either “Hill Yeah!” or “Vote For The Girl.” In addition, the store began carrying Hillary coloring books and dolls. “I think Bernie’s designs are more interesting.” she adds.
The store owner tells us she recalls the enthusiasm of the “Baracklyn” logo she sported on her own t-shirt during the 2008 campaign. “I wanted to get people excited about our t-shirts as well,” says Kurkowski.
When the boutique began selling the Hillary merch, the dialogue between customers, passersby, and workers changed quite a bit. The comments were no longer just about colors, texture, and furnishings.
“It’s been interesting. Ever since we started selling them, people come in and tell us what they think of the election,” says Kurkowski. “It has become a forum, and there are a wide range of opinions.” Bernie campaigners came in to ask where the merchandise was coming from, and how the Hillary sign got in the window.
But the dialogue wasn’t always civil.
The New York Post reported that sales clerk Stephanie Henry was on the receiving end of some tough moments. “One man stopped outside as I was putting up a sale sign and said we ‘should die for supporting a murderer. She’s a thief,’ ” Henry told the Post. “He had Bernie buttons on his backpack.”
This wasn’t the only instance in which Henry heard negative comments about the place carrying Hillary merch. In an interview with the Post, “She [a woman who entered the store] said I shouldn’t support Hillary because she ‘hasn’t done anything for the black community’ and we’re ‘sheep’ for going along with Democrats,” said Henry, who is African American.
Kurkowski and Items of Interest employees started noticing what she describes as “very nasty comments” on their Facebook page, which they subsequently removed. “I don’t think the comments necessarily came from local people,” she tells us. “They were saying some insane stuff.”
But Kurkowski believes there have been some positive moments. “I have one employee who’s from South Brooklyn who was having a conversation with a Swedish journalist who described herself as a socialist,” she says.
The owner also thinks that the Bernie supporters simply wanted to purchase Bernie merchandise. “People have been asking. I tried to get some Bernie action figures, but the order wouldn’t come until July,” says Kurkowski. “In hindsight, I should have made Bernie t-shirts. But none of this has been planned out.”
However, Kurkowski isn’t surprised that the t-shirts have sparked dialogue. “I think it’s great that Bernie has gotten people excited. But it’s not necessarily always in a good way. There’s a lot of anger and bluster.”
Kurkowski tells us the t-shirts are still available in both children ($22) and adult ($28) sizes.
“We’re donating $1 to the Hillary campaign for every t-shirt sold,” she adds. “Actually, I have to send in that check.”