The Accidental Queen of Coney Island

“I don’t know if I’m the best community activist on earth,” the modest merchant confided. “Once, I was being interviewed by Time magazine, and they were like, ‘Well, what can people do to save Coney Island?’ That was around the time that we were planning our float in the Mermaid Parade. And I was like, ‘Well, you can come dance on our float in the Mermaid Parade to the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!).”’ We changed the words to ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Coney!)’ Later, I was like, ‘What kind of community activist am I? Come dance to the Beastie Boys?’ But that’s kind of perfect. That’s what Coney Island is all about.”

Prior to staking her claim upon the historic Brooklyn boardwalk, Ms. Carlin, who designed her first T-shirt at 15, hawked her homemade wares at warehouse rave parties back in her native Detroit. “I always sort of thought of it as a hobby,” she said. “I really wanted to be a painter.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1996, however, she quickly grew disillusioned with life as a struggling artist. “Not only because of how difficult it was to make a living as a painter,” she said, “but also just the limited scope of painting in that so few people would ever experience or see my paintings. I wanted my art to be more universal. I love that you can buy a T-shirt for $20 and my artwork becomes a part of you, it becomes a part of your self-expression.”

Her passion for fashion ultimately lured her to New York. Weekend trips to the Brooklyn shore convinced her to open her own store. “I would always go to Coney Island and be like, ‘Wow, if only I could get a cute Coney Island T-shirt,’” she said. “Finally, I was like, ‘You know, I’m just going to do it. I’m going to open my own store on Coney Island.’”

In 2001, she set up shop inside a tiny space once occupied by what she called a “two-headed baby exhibit.” Before that, it was a brothel. “Guys still come in and ask what’s going on back there, or get the wrong idea about the cute girls that I have working there,” Ms. Carlin said.

“I don’t even know how I lasted the first year,” she added. “Coney Island has changed a lot in the eight years I’ve been there. I mean, it’s the Wild West now, but back then it was much different. It was really hard coming in as an outsider and being a woman. I met with a lot of obstacles.”

Her first landlord took her for a sucker. “He rented me the store, but he rented the doorway of my store to the piña colada stand,” she said. “So, I got there on the first day of the season and there’s a huge piña colada stand blocking the entrance. You had to walk around the piña colada stand to find my store.”

It took months of arguing before the landlord finally pushed the obstructive concession stand a few feet to the side.

Still, that was nothing compared to the tough tactics she faced from present landlord Mr. Sitt, who threatened tenants with $10,000 fines for speaking out about his plans to redevelop the amusement district last year.

“When I first refused to sign that confidentiality clause, and I was [almost] evicted from my store because of it, it seemed like a really stupid move,” Ms. Carlin said. “I was losing my business because of some idealistic belief in something. It was really a difficult decision to make. But it sort of led to this series of events, starting the ‘Save Coney Island’ organization and the demonstration [at City Hall] and this whole sequence of events that’s been so positive for myself and Coney Island.”

The Accidental Queen of Coney Island