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Comedian’s post-COVID gig: On the sales floor of her own boutique

Brooklyn stand-up comic Carolyn Busa had to reboot her career due to the pandemic. So she came back to South Jersey and opened her own venue: Peak Secondhand, a used clothing store in Merchantville.

Carolyn Busa outside her new store, Peak Secondhand, on Centre Street at Maple Avenue in Merchantville.  A Collingswood native, Busa built a following for her stand-up comedy in Philly and NYC.
Carolyn Busa outside her new store, Peak Secondhand, on Centre Street at Maple Avenue in Merchantville. A Collingswood native, Busa built a following for her stand-up comedy in Philly and NYC.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Carolyn Busa’s saucy stand-up comedy routine about sex and love grew her a fan base in Brooklyn comedy clubs and beyond until the pandemic abruptly shut down the scene in 2020.

So after years of open-mic nights and coproducing a successful series of regular comedy events called Side Ponytail, the Collingswood native landed back home in South Jersey.

Fortunately, Busa has since found plenty of fresh material — in the form of vintage and gently used clothing — and has created a showcase for her sweet, wry, brainy, blunt, and earthy personality.

She opened Peak Secondhand at Centre Street and Maple Avenue in Merchantville early in June (just in time for a downtown street repair project). The used clothing and accessories emporium is meant for people who are looking for something to wear — or just somewhere to hang out and enjoy the vibe.

“The store has a funky, cool owner, it’s bright and colorful, and the music is sexy and good. I want the clothes to either enhance what you are already exploring with your style, or define a new one,” said Busa, who’s 35.

“Basically, I want the store to do something like coffee does, except with clothes. Coffee gives you a jolt. Why can’t clothes do that, too?”

A reporter arriving for an interview found Busa attired in a black-and-white-striped, short-sleeved minidress, geometric black tights, and kicky little black boots. A track by LCD Soundsystem was percolating in the background as she finished hand-lettering a sandwich-board sign before opening it on the sidewalk: Don’t honk if your horny for deals.

(Semi-horrified after realizing her grammatical error, Busa later emailed the reporter to say a correction had been made.)

“I’m all about the horniness,” she said. “‘Peak’ refers to a woman’s sexual peak, which for me started around age 30, and seems like it just keeps going and going and going. In my conversations with older women, they tell me, ‘Just wait until you get there.’”

The Merchantville landmark that houses Peak Secondhand was built in the Roaring 1920s for a drugstore. Its exuberant Mission Revival-style architecture provides a perfect backdrop for Busa’s quirky sensibilities — as are evident in her store’s cheeky name, curvaceous logo, and adroit displays of artfully curated dresses, shirts, pants, tank tops, and T-shirts.

“I want it to be a place where pricing is approachable,” she said. “My focus is on making sure the clothes are colorful, bold, and flashy.”

An artist herself, Busa has decorated Peak Secondhand with her own drawings as well as nightstand-appropriate stacks of books, like the late Cosmopolitan magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown’s classic Having It All. There’s a dollar bin as well as a hand-drawn sign advertising “$5 paaanntts!”

Clearly, the proprietor/impresario had a great time getting this act together.

Nonetheless, credit for building the dressing room, the counter, and otherwise helping structure the store’s interior belongs to Busa’s dad.

“What you see is what Carolyn wanted,” said Steve Busa, 69, a retired welder who lives in Collingswood with his wife, Wanda. She’s a retired teacher; Jennifer, the older of their two daughters, is an educational publications editor in Colorado.

“Carolyn has told us several times she’s going to work like hell to make her store work.”

A longtime fan of thrifting, or shopping for used clothing and accessories, Busa was inspired to get into the business by Frugal Thrift and Vintage in Collingswood. The Haddon Avenue store closed last year, but Busa networked with fellow thrift fans and friends to build her inventory for Peak.

“After I put out in the universe that I was opening a store, people started giving me clothing donations,” she said. “I’m basically never going to have to buy my own clothes again.”

Nurturing a community around a store is essential, much as finding and becoming part of a community is crucial when entering the comedy world, she said.

In 2007, Busa was “kind of floundering” as a Rowan University writing arts major and decided to try stand-up.

People were always saying to me, ‘You’re so funny.’ I would say, ‘What do you mean? I’m just me, existing,’” she recalled. “But I started going to stupid open mics in these fake coffeehouses on campus that were like, college students serving coffee.”

She graduated from pretend coffeehouses in Glassboro to producing comedy shows at the Collingswood Community Center, doing stand-up at other South Jersey venues, and becoming part of the Philly scene centered around Helium Comedy Club near 20th and Sansom in Center City.

“On Tuesday mic nights you got three minutes and it seemed epic, especially if you were bad,” she said. “If the back corner was laughing, that wasn’t good, because the ones laughing were the other comics and they were enjoying your suffering, in a way. But I didn’t quit.”

After getting established in Philly, Busa moved to Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood in 2013 with friends. As she “trudged” through open mics, and moved onto coproducing Side Ponytail, Busa’s writing and performances evolved from observational to more personal humor.

“I was breaking up with my boyfriend, and that was a mess, and I started writing jokes about it,” she said. “I went from jokes about generational stuff to ‘I want to cheat on my boyfriend while we’re breaking up but still involved with each other.’

“After the breakup, I snapped out of that funk and my routines started to be centered around my sexual peak. That was how I was known: ‘Peak Carolyn.’”

Fellow comic Emily Winter, who coproduced the Side Ponytail shows, said she has “never met anyone quite like” Busa.

“I am so sad that she left New York, but this store is such a perfect thing for her,” Winter said. “I got to visit there a couple weekends ago and she just so lit up about having it, and having people enjoy it. And she does have great taste in clothes.”

Asked if she has left comedy behind for good, Busa said, “Definitely not. I’m too good to never do comedy again!

“During COVID I didn’t perform for a year, and I survived,” she said. “For now, I just want to see what other things I’m good at.”

Busa and her father looked at a number of locations in Philadelphia before finding the space on busy Centre Street in Merchantville. The borough’s commercial heart is charming, but often low-key; Mayor Ted Brennan said he is encouraged by recent business openings.

“I think it says that Merchantville is an attractive option for people who are investing in themselves, and Carolyn is a great example of that,” he said.

As for that downtown road work, Brennan said Camden County is repairing portions of Centre Street and periodically disrupting traffic as well as parking. “We’re trying to improve communication between the county, the professionals involved in the work, and all the businesses,” he said.

Busa seems to be taking things in stride, posting maps of parking alternatives on social media.

“I’m grateful for anyone who comes in the store,” she said. “Usually there are tons of cars going by, and I like to put on a dress and go outside and wave. I don’t want anyone to miss my antics.”