Divine Intervention for Club
By JO PIAZZA for the Wall Street Journal
Jan. 11, 2013 8:18 p.m. ET
Some neighbors looked at the abandoned Queens nightclub Studio 34 and saw the remnants of a good time. Others welcomed the end of depravity and strobe lights. One went so far as to compare the cinder-block-walled disco to the underworld.
But when Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, a nun in her 60s, first set eyes on the 8,000-square-foot space, she saw something completely different: a thrift store.
Sister Fitzgerald runs halfway houses in Astoria and Long Island City for women recently released from prison, funded in part by her growing thrift-shop business in Queens.
The shops share the name of Sister Fitzgerald’s charity, Hour Children, and their green-and-white-striped awnings with cursive lettering make them look more like ice-cream parlors than second-hand stores.
The three stores she currently operates are filled wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with inventory. Everything from a white baby grand piano to a sheared beaver cape to an armoire believed to be from Brittany is waiting to find new homes.
For 15 years, the spot on 34th Avenue served as a nightclub, first as Club DNA and then Studio 34, said the building’s landlord, Tony Argento. The state Liquor Authority confirmed that violations for underage drinking and other problems were issued at the location, and Mr. Argento acknowledged problems.
“The club had very loud noise on the weekends. It didn’t have sufficient parking. There were complaints about underage kids coming into the club,” he said. “That was why we decided not to put another club there. What Sister Tesa is doing will be better for the neighborhood.”
Sister Fitzgerald, who was named a CNN Hero last year, saw a “For Rent” sign at the closed nightclub over the summer and asked the landlord if she could rent it out for a new venture. Her order, the Sisters of St. Joseph, is based on Long Island, but she lives in the Astoria halfway house.
“We needed to get rid of four bars, a dance floor and a lot of questionable rooms in the basement,” Sister Fitzgerald said. “I don’t want to know what they did down there.”
She describes the first time she walked into the club, shut down last year, as depressing. The space was dark and still filled with barstools and strobe lights.
“It was a little overwhelming in the beginning. We thought we would have to do all the renovations ourselves,” Sister Fitzgerald said. “But the landlord took a liking to us and is helping out.”
Helping out included the installation of giant picture windows, the replacement of the floors, ripping out those bars and relieving the basement of those questionable rooms.
Every square inch will be used to move second-hand loot, all of it donations.
Maximizing value is this nun’s forté. She brags, in a Long Island accent that comes and goes, that she never buys clothes or furniture. Everything she wears and everything she lives with has been donated. The stores also furnish her five transitional houses for women who have left prison and clothe all of the women and their children, including her store manager Luz De Leon, who met Sister Fitzgerald while serving 10 years in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women for manslaughter.
“The women are released from prison without any clothes. We have anything they want. We have sweaters and suits and coats. At any given time we have 20 strollers. And we have bling,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper. “Everyone wants some bling.”
The Hour Children thrift shops met their goal last year of $400,000 in gross revenue. Staff members hope to double that this year as they double their space. As Sister Fitzgerald and her employees breathe new life into the old club, they hope the old club will breathe new life into their bank accounts.
“What I want is for us to be the Housing Works of Queens,” said Pat Gallo, a volunteer who manages the stores’ merchandise, referring to the Manhattan and Brooklyn thrift stores that have become a fan favorite for sophisticated spendthrifts.
“Our prices are better. Our real estate isn’t,” she said.
Having nuns replace clubgoers is also an improvement for the neighborhood, say those who live close to the former nightclub.
“It was like hell. They used to get drunk, fight, come outside, park all over the place and at 4 in the morning, when they got out, they would all blow their horns and urinate outside our doors,” said Ben Vitale, who has lived across the street for 40 years. “This will be good. We need some peace around here.”
Beneath her cap of smartly styled salt-and-pepper hair, Sister Fitzgerald is always thinking of new ways to make money for her organization.
Looking around the near-finished former dance floor, she wondered out loud whether she could resurrect the spirit of Studio 34 for just one night.
“Maybe we’ll have a dance here before we open,” she said.