ITHACA, N.Y.—Twenty-six years ago, Karen Sciarabba set out to replicate her favorite second-hand clothing store she frequented during the Ithaca winters she spent in Arizona. Karen hated paying the full price for new clothes, so a store that was more selective with its used inventory seemed like something she could pull off.

Almost all the merchandise used to open the store was found second-hand, including the clothing racks, which were donated by department stores that had closed.

“There was no competition here at the time. There was Salvation Army, but they weren’t the same,” Karen said while explaining her desire to mimic the Arizona store and curate second-hand offerings instead of taking random donations like Salvation Army.

After Jay Sciarabba, Karen’s husband, secured the store’s initial location at the east end of the Commons, Trader K’s opened as Ithaca’s first curated second-hand store. After 10 years and three expansions in that spot, the store moved its inventory down to the more central retail space it has resided in for the last 16 years.

“We lifted racks into the back of trucks and just drove them back and forth. We’ve done everything ourselves: painting, construction, everything,” Jay said, reminiscing over the store’s move they accomplished in one night, closing at 6 p.m. Saturday and working through the night to reopen for business Sunday morning.

Aside from a temporary relocation during construction on the Commons and closing for a few months due to COVID in 2020, Trader K’s has stayed much the same over its lifetime. Using the same register, buying and organizing clothes and doing it all by hand is what gives Trader K’s its distinct character.

The couple has been partnering with TST BOCES and the Challenge Workforce Solutions program to help interns learn how to work in retail.

“I think the nice thing about us is that we provide women’s, men’s and children’s [clothing] so whole families can shop here. We have families that come from two hours away twice a year to shop for their kids before school because this is the only place they could afford to outfit the whole family for the school year,” long-time employee Jesse Williams said, with Jay chiming in to agree that they have “watched a lot of kids grow up and even start to have their own kids.”

After all running the daily business for the past 25-plus years, Karen and Jay have finally decided it’s time for a change to their daily routine. Because they end up taking frequent weekend trips to see their son, Karen said she’s often been left in a lurch with payroll and a long to-do list when they get back to town.

Trader K’s is closing its doors after 26 years on the Commons. (Photo by Zoë Freer-Hessler)

“Retired has got that word ‘tired’ in it,” Jay said, citing a clientele shift and the continued construction on the Commons that has made access more difficult for customers, in turn impacting the quality of items the store is able to get.

“Our son is away at school and plays hockey a lot, we haven’t been on vacation in three or four years,” Karen said. “We survived it all—construction, the pandemic. It’s an emotional thing now and it’s a losing battle.”

Though they’ll be stepping out of the retail-owner role, the Sciarabbas aren’t leaving the Commons completely and still own several buildings downtown, including the one housing Trader K’s. Though they aren’t sure who will take over the space once the store is gone, Jay said that they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it, or rather, when someone is interested in moving into the space.

“We didn’t want to sell the business to someone else to potentially run into the ground with our names still attached to it,” Jay said. “We’ve always been doing something, now we’re not going to do anything. We came in, we did our thing. Everybody has to have an end-time, and we finally decide this is ours.”

Everything in the store is currently 30% off (and final sale) as part of the liquidation plan. Everything, including the clothing racks and displays, is for sale, and private shopping parties are available for the next few weeks before the store closes sometime in April. More information about booking can be found here.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...