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Longmont Local: The Obscure Closet owner sees the world through an equity lens

The Obscure Closet is proudly listed as an autistic-owned and operated business.

The Obscure Closet, an eclectic gift shop in downtown Longmont that opened in September, is more than a collection of antiques, vintage toys and clothes, and handmade art for its owner Elise Blackford  — who prefers they/them pronouns. It's a space for them to speak candidly about neurodiversity and gender identity.

The Obscure Closet is proudly listed as an autistic-owned and operated business. Blackford is open about their experience with autism, physical disability and identifying as non-binary. They want the store to be a place for inclusion and conversation.

Blackford built a business from their special interest of collecting vintage toys and other finds. Special interests, or a focus on a specific topic, is a common trait among individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

Plushies from the 70s-90s, Blackford’s artwork and jewelry, a mini photo studio and random antiques are housed inside of the pastel-painted storefront on the first floor of the Old Town Marketplace at 332 Main St. 

Every item is hand-picked, cleaned and restored by Blackford. Some items are repurposed, like antique textiles that are too worn are turned into patches. The toys, jewelry and decor are picked for a specific reason, Blackford said, not just because the items are old. They know the story behind each item on The Obscure Closet’s shelves.

“​​I especially want autistic youth to see that there's options,” Blackford said. “You can open a toy store, if that's your special interest. You know, like if your special interest is trains, you can teach people about trains. You can take your special interest and focus on it like a trade and be successful and not have to feel unincluded.”

Though The Obscure Closet store opened in September, it builds from an online store by the same name. Blackford opened The Obscure Closet around the start of the pandemic on Depop_ an ecommerce app where users can list and sell items. For now, the Depop store is closed while Blackford settles into the brick-and-mortar

In the year and a half The Obscure Closet operated exclusively online, Blackford found mostly adults were purchasing the vintage toys. They received personal messages from customers who had a nostalgic connection to their purchases.

“I realized that it was bringing a really specific kind of joy that was really needed during COVID,” Blackford said. “You get [the toy] in the mail and you open it and it seems like a frivolous purchase. But all those good feelings  you really happy and everyone was feeling that and I wanted to help even more people feel that.”

Blackford said they want The Obscure Closet to be like a museum of vintage finds where people can come and look. They wanted a place in Longmont that branched out past the Depop community and was a fun place for all ages to shop.

“It's The Obscure Closet because I have nothing but random stuff in there. It is so mixed up. There are beautiful 1950s antiques, there are 100 year old letters, artwork,” Blackford said. “Then there's early 2000s. There's tons of McDonald's toys, there's Barbies, there's 80s toys. So it doesn't matter what age you are, you come in and you see your childhood represented.”

Before working for themself, Blackford worked a variety of jobs including dog grooming, custom framing, nannying and early childhood education. But maintaining employment was challenging since there weren’t always accommodations. Blackford is also diagnosed with a neurological degenerative disease that challenges mobility, and they had to leave jobs that they loved.

“Finding employment my entire adult life has been a huge struggle. I totally come across as what people call high functioning, but I'm definitely not. I require a caregiver. I need help doing a lot of things,” Blackford said. “I would start out with jobs and it was always great because I love to work and I always had jobs that I loved but I could not maintain them.”

Blackford added that a consistent Monday to Friday work week was often not available. Working in preschools could be overstimulating and required heavy lifting.

Employers didn't always understand Blackford’s experiences, like having a changing level of energy or feeling exhausted from autistic burnout. A lack of understanding led to hurtful interactions. They recall an interview for a job where after they disclosed they were autistic, the interviewees said something along the lines of “We’ve never had one of those before,” Blackford said. 

“Pretty often when people hear that I'm autistic, they switch to talking about me in the third person as if they can talk about me, in front of me,” Blackford said. “There's just so many little things like that. But I'm just here with my door wide open for people to come talk to me about it.”

Blackford wants The Obscure Closet to be a place where they can talk about their experiences openly, and offer understanding to other neurodivergent individuals. The Obscure Closet hasn’t been open for long, but Blackford has had several meaningful conversations with customers that relate to them and the store. 

One day, two 10-year-olds were shopping in the gift store. After they found out that Blackford was autistic, they both shared that they were too and felt free to ‘stim.’ Stimming is a shortened term for self-stimulatory behavior, or repetitive body movements.

“There's really good stims, there's very bad stims that can be self-destructive, but pretty much every autistic person has what I think is an extra fun way to express their joy,” Blackford explained.

Blackford said people with autism can feel reluctant to stim because of fear of being ridiculed. For Blackford, they jump and move their hands when excited and it was special that the two 10-year olds felt comfortable enough to stim in the giftstore.

“I've had so many experiences just like that with people who were like ‘Wow, you see me and I see you,’” Blackford said.

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