How standup helped Carolyn Busa create Peak Secondhand, a place for people ‘to be their best selves’

"I was deciding on whether to put the store in Philly or a suburb, and I thought about the time I was growing up [in Merchantville], and remembered the places I didn’t have. I remember my time in New York, and wanted to bring that experience to the suburbs.”

On an overcast Saturday morning in Merchantville, there are a couple teenagers hanging out at Peak Secondhand, a secondhand store located across the street from the town’s library.

For the businesses of cities like Merchantville, where foot traffic is heavy, rainy days can put a damper on sales. So owner Carolyn Busa, a Collingswood native, is happy to see customers in her store… even if they aren’t buying anything. 

“I’m glad I can give kids a place to go in and feel cool for 15 minutes,” says Busa. “I didn’t really have that growing up. It’s great that they got to have fun.”

The road to owning a secondhand store came with many twists and turns, but it all started a couple minutes down Cuthbert Boulevard in Collingswood, where Busa grew up. 

Busa had a pretty normal South Jersey childhood—she was a theater kid, who went to Rowan University for college. Though she didn’t have the best experience in Glassboro, she found comedy in her junior year of college and performed standup at a coffee shop.

“My bits from these early sets are pretty seared in my memory at this point,” says Busa. “My first year doing comedy was a lot of bits about board games I played growing up, using my boyfriend’s action movies during a big bomb scene to sneak out farts; those were pretty killer bits.”

Even though Busa started her comedy career in South Jersey, she felt some difficulty performing here, and couldn’t be the comedian that she wanted to be. 

“I felt like I had to appeal to the stereotypical funny guy,” explains Busa. “I felt like I had to be the girl that was raunchier for the wrong reasons.”

In her 20s, Busa moved up to Brooklyn for a job and to pursue comedy. Not feeling like she had to prove anything to anyone allowed her to be the type of comedian that she wanted to be and explore topics that she couldn’t in South Jersey, like relationships and sex, on her terms.

“There are so many places up in Brooklyn where you could perform standup and you could start your own shows,” says Busa. “All the bad stuff about comedy is still there, but there was more room to grow up there.”

During her time in Brooklyn, Busa hosted her own comedy show called Side Ponytail, and she also got to open up for comedian Demitri Martin. Still, she still felt like her comedy career was stuck in neutral at times.

“I would get invited to this comedy festival in Portland,” says Busa. “It was this festival for up-and-coming comics. I got accepted three times, which was a big fucking deal for me. The first time I got accepted I was like, ‘I’m going places.’ The second time I was like, ‘OK, here we go!’ And the third time I got accepted I was like, ‘What the hell?’ Someone who was there was giving recommendations to Martin, and he chose my set. Which is cool knowing he actually watched it to pick me. He was a nice guy, and I played two sets with him. I had a lot of great sets, but nothing career-moving, which for so many people that is just how it is.

“I was like, ‘Oh, this is the uphill,’ but in reality it just evened out.”

On the night when Tom Hanks got COVID, Busa was performing a set in Brooklyn, and little did she know that it would be her last set for a while.

“The whole Instagram Live shows felt so fucking weird,” says Busa. “I was also enjoying not going out and performing. I was around my dog 24/7 and couldn’t believe that I would leave my dog to go to the bar.”

Busa had a steady job that provided her the availability to work from home, so she went back to South Jersey during the early stages of the pandemic, and fell in love with someone down here. 

Like REM has said before, ‘Leaving New York is never easy,’ but for Busa, coming back to South Jersey provided her the opportunity to open up her own secondhand store, Peak Secondhand. 

The store is also an ode to Busa’s comedy career as a lot of her material was about sexually peaking, and in the store there are books and images about body positivity.

“I wanted to bring an aspect of my comedy to the store,” explains Busa. “My big joke during comedy was about sexually peaking, and I just want people to be their best selves. I sprinkled the store with funky books, and pictures of bodies just so people can understand the message I want to send.” 

 Busa was dismayed when her favorite thrift shop in Collingswood closed, and the idea to open Peak came when she decided to take matters into her own hands. 

“I realized that I could do it,” says Busa. “I spent $100 on this shitty business course online to learn things. I started looking into commercial real estate, and picked the brains of businesses that I liked.

“At the time, I was deciding on whether to put the store in Philly or a suburb, and I thought about the time I was growing up, and remembered the places I didn’t have. I remember my time in New York, and wanted to bring that experience to the suburbs.”

The store is located in a former photo studio and has a smorgasbord of clothes—many of which Busa collected herself, though she does accept donations. 

Busa loves having a good atmosphere at her store, and would love to host events at the shop. What better way to start doing that than helping out with Pride? In June, Peak Secondhand hosted a Pride fashion show. Busa was impressed with how neighboring Haddon Township handles their Pride events, so she wanted to do one of her own. 

“It took up a lot of my brain power from April, May, June,” explains Busa about the Pride event. “I threw a fashion show, and it was a different, fun type of event. There are parades and information sessions, but I felt like I could do a fashion show since I have experience producing comedy shows.’’

Busa wrote a proposal for the event and found a DJ that wasn’t a “suburban dad,” in her words. Overall, Busa felt like the event was a success.

“It was so much fun,” says Busa. “Even the mayor was one of the models, and the store served as a green room. It was an awesome day, and I’m glad my store can provide people a space to be themselves.’’

In terms of clothing, Busa notices that particular items fly off the shelves, and she would like to expand in one area of clothing. 

“At first people bought a lot of T-shirts,” says Busa. “But now dresses are pretty popular, and I do want to expand my men’s section as well.”

One of Busa’s favorite aspects of running a secondhand store is interacting with her customers, and providing a welcoming environment. She enjoys seeing families come into the store as well. 

“I see a lot of parents and their kids coming into the shop,” says Busa. “They are just enjoying each other’s company, and checking out the clothes. It’s cool to see the mother-daughter relationships play out at the store.”

In the future, Busa hopes to branch out and have other businesses be a part of Peak.

“In my dream world, I would love to get bigger space, and for it to be more cooperative and have other businesses get involved,” says Busa. “What I’m finding is this is becoming another version of stand-up where it’s very much me, whatever happens next with Peak, I hope it will be with more joint members.”

For more information on Peak Secondhand, go here.