By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
When you enter Dem Two Hands on Montclair’s N. Fullerton Avenue, you are welcomed by soft Caribbean music, vibrant and funky hand-made clothing of varied textures and colors, and an array of jewelry covered in rhinestones.
You are also welcomed by Marion Lake, 65, the owner of Dem Two Hands, greeting you warmly through the Guyanese accent she’s kept even after living in the United States for decades.
It’s an experience that’ll soon be part of Montclair’s past. The financial impact of the coronavirus and the death of Lake’s sister, Marcela Andrea DeCaires, made it too difficult for the business to continue in person. Dem Two Hands will be closing its doors at the end of May, but the store will continue online, at demtwohands.com.
According to the store’s website, the name “Dem Two Hands” is a “testimony and exaltation of the creativity and resourcefulness of art crafted by hand.”
Lake, who is originally from Georgetown, Guyana, arrived in the United States in 1973, at the age of 17. She first lived in Brooklyn, and moved to Montclair 35 years ago.
While in New York City, Lake studied textile design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, propelling her talent as a seamstress, a skill she first learned from her mother. After graduating from college, Lake worked in a store in SoHo. She would make designs, sew and weave.
She moved to Montclair with a vision to have her own place, to sell her work and that of other artists.
Thirty-five years ago, Montclair was different, Lake said.
“I really moved to Montclair because Montclair was a community that was really mixed,” Lake said.
At first, Lake opened a store with a partner on Walnut Street. She worked there for four years before opening a store on her own.
Lake opened Dem Two Hands with what little money she had. After paying for the basics such as electricity, painting and the first and last month rent, Lake was left with nothing in her savings account.
“I really put the store together myself,” Lake said. “I had a very short time to put it together because I needed to start making money.”
But being a female business owner wasn’t easy, she said. She got pushback from her own mother.
“When I first opened, my mother came and she said, ‘I think you should close this because doing business is not for you. It’s for your brothers,’” Lake said.
But Lake kept the store running. She remembers there were days where she came into the store, hoping for people to come in.
And, slowly but surely, they began to. Lake hired two employees and as time passed, and the store became more well-known, she hired more. That gave her more time to continue creating more designs and making alterations at home.
Lake’s late sister, DeCaires, joined her in the business after 15 years.
“She made a lot of really good customers and they really loved her because she was always so conscientious to get them stuff that they wanted, and to make sure that they got what they came to get,” Lake said.
For the past 30 years, Lake has dressed generations of women and families. She’d known customers who came into the store pregnant with their sons or daughters. Those same sons and daughters would come back years later to be dressed for their own weddings.
She enjoyed empowering women she’s known for years, through clothing. They “just kind of come into their own, to their own way and their own power,” Lake said.
Belinda Edmonson, a longtime customer, described Dem Two Hands in an email as “so much more than a clothing store for me and other women of African descent.”
“It’s a place where we meet our friends and try on things together, a place to catch up with people in the community,” she wrote. “Sometimes there was even the occasional celebrity sighting (Chaka Khan!). I always loved the name. Marion built that store from scratch with her own two hands. It’s a testament to what we can do for ourselves.”
But the past year has been difficult. The coronavirus pandemic “really just ripped us apart,” Lake said.
“First of all, I lost my sister and she was a very big part of this,” she said. “That was really hard for me.”
Lake was home for a few weeks after her sister died, and even though the store reopened last summer, the business was not the same.
“Financially, I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Lake said.
Lake, along with her two employees, decided to create an online store where they will continue selling original Dem Two Hands creations as well as accessories from other artists.
Lake said she doesn’t know if she’ll ever re-open the store, or perhaps another. But she said she’s grateful for all the memories she through Dem Two Hands, and thankful to a community that welcomed her with open arms.
She said she’d tell her customers: “It was a fantastic time together. I am going to miss you greatly more than I could imagine right now. But I’m not the young whip-whip-snapper that started here 30 years ago. I’m much older now. And I feel like I’m grinded down. I need to take some time. Thank you for all your support every day, all the time.”