"It keeps me sane, " Barbara Riering, the co-owner of Rita's Needlepoint, said, referring to the craft that has now become her job. She told me that her grandmother taught her how to do needlepoint when she was nine years old and that she has stuck with it ever since. Originally a lawyer, she came to Rita's Needlepoint first as a customer before leaving law in 1989 and then as Rita's partner in 2005. She says that she often tells lawyer friends who are still deep in their stressful careers, "There's a light at the end of the tunnel, " a time when they can do what she did and leave their high stress career and follow a passion. Many of the women in the shop are retired and work with Barbara part time. As for Rita, who quietly sat painting a belt in the back room, she got her start working in tapestry in France. She came to New York in 1968 and opened her store in 1976. Barbara believes that Rita's Needlepoint might be one of the oldest needlepoint shops in the country. Exploring the space, I discovered both needlepoint tools and patterns. Along with spools of every color thread imaginable, I saw hand-painted designs for a variety of items, including belts, eyeglass covers, and handbags. There were Christmas items on display, which I learned are out all year round, because people often only work on one big holiday project each year. Barbara told me that some of the most popular items are the little ornaments. She explained that while they try to do as many custom projects as they are able, demand often overwhelms them. After all, the needlepoint community is a reasonably large one and Rita's is a destination for this tight-knit world. Barbara said that people come to the store from as far away as Japan and Morocco, sometimes straight from the airport. There are also customers who are native New Yorkers and "who have grown up with Rita, " she said. She referenced a woman who occasionally helps out in the store, Jennifer. She has been with Rita since 1974 and used the store as a creative outlet when she was working in the world of finance. "People come here and decide to spend part of the day with us, so we make sure they are happy they did so, " Barbara shared, adding, "It's stress reduction to all! "
When Dr. Georg Kremer was a student in Germany studying chemistry, a painter friend of his could not find a particular historical pigment and approached Kremer about it. Digging through archives, Kremer found the recipe to make it (this was well before the advent of the internet), and brought this extinct pigment back to life. Realizing a void in the art world, Dr. Kremer began to recreate other old pigments. Today, he continues to work in his lab in Germany, but Manhattan is where he opened his shop. Kremer sells his raw materials for preservation and restoration of fine art, as well as pigments for those who wish to paint using more traditional techniques. The vivid colors that Kremer has devised come from precious and semiprecious stones. In my home, we grew up repeating the mantra that we learned from my mom, "any color as long as it is blue. " Never have I seen as many magnificent shades of this color as I did at Kremer. Classes are taught on a regular basis for those who want to learn how to make their own paint. They provide the recipe and customers add their own "personal aesthetic. "
It does not matter what I am looking for, I always stop by Stationery and Toys first, certain that I will find what I need. Sometimes I find myself laughing out loud when I ask either of the owners of this fantastic old world shop, a father and daughter, for the item that I am in search of that day, and they answer "of course we have it. " With its simple name and treasure trove of items for children and adults alike, it is one of the last of its kind, and it makes me happy simply to wander the aisles. "I used to sell wholesale to Hallmark stores, " Larry Gomez, the founder, shared with me one day. "Now there aren't places like this anymore. " On the day that I visited with the Manhattan Sideways team, Larry took the time, in between ringing customers up for paper, pens, puzzles and party supplies, to tell us how the store began. He said that his daughter, Donna Schofield, came home from college to help him in the wholesale business. As Larry tells it, Donna said, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, I don't want to sit in a warehouse anymore. I want to work in retail. " Donna, when I spoke to her, tells it a little differently. She says, "I was talking to the same people every day with very little sight of daylight. I wanted to work in a store. "Either way, the outcome was a positive one. Larry gave Donna her wish in 1988 by opening Stationery and Toys. One day, I asked her what it was like having children while working around toys. She said, "My son thought the warehouse was Santa Claus's section. " The boy, who is now fully grown, knew to stay away. His younger sister, though, needed more convincing not to play with the toys. Donna gave the keys to the store to her brother-in-law for a while in order to spend more time with her family, but in 2009, she returned. "She's the big cheese, now, " Larry declared. Today, during the week, when a customer walks into the store, they will see Donna behind the counter and on the weekends it is Larry who is there, allowing his daughter to remain at home. "I'm the Saturday Sunday man! " he said with a grin. Donna's son, however, has started coming in on weekends to work with his grandfather, while he studies to become an electrician. It is this sense of family that Larry believes has saved their store. Donna and Larry form a friendly pair of faces for neighbors to recognize from year to year. He says that they still see many regulars from when the store first opened, though as Larry put it sadly, "there are many that we've lost. " He brightened, however, when he told me about the men and women who come in with their children. Larry recognizes many as having been frequent shoppers when they were kids themselves. He considers himself quite fortunate to have stayed in business through the years. When he first started, he explained, the area was known as "Needle Park" and in order to stay out of danger, people got out of the neighborhood by six in the evening. Now, Larry embraces the fact that the street is a place where families can safely thrive. When speaking with Gary - a sales assistant who has been with the store "for a long time" - I asked him how they decide what to stock, since the inventory seems to be infinite. He replied, "Donna gets it word of mouth, through the kids. The best thing to do is to listen to them. " Donna agreed, saying "If I get asked for an item three times, I get it. " Just before we were leaving, we witnessed a beautiful yet typical moment when Donna noticed a little boy eying a batman figurine on the counter while his mother was making a purchase. Donna sweetly handed the toy to him and told him that it was now his. Neighborhood kindness and generosity is alive and well at Stationery and Toys.
Designing a Broadway show? Shooting your own horror film? Making the annual trek to Comic Con? Your first stop should be a trip to W 29th Street’s Manhattan Wardrobe Supply — a specialty hair, makeup, costume and craft shop whose motto is, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it! ” Carrying everything from hard-to-find professional hair and makeup products to sewing and jewelry supplies to sought-after sneaker paint, Manhattan Wardrobe Supply is the go-to for film, TV and theatrical designers as well as everyday New Yorkers with a vision. Operating out of a humble Chelsea office building for the past 25 years, the 6, 000 square-foot public warehouse is a veritable candy store of craft, all lovingly curated by veteran costume and wardrobe supervisors Cheryl Kilbourne-Kimpton and Tommy Boyer. “I got a job working on a film by accident, ” laughed Cheryl, who initially studied fashion in college and was working as a stylist in Atlanta, Georgia, when Hollywood came calling. “They needed a seamstress, and when the set costumer left the show, they bumped me up — even though I’d never been on a movie set before, ” she added. “Through trial and error, I got through that job — and I got the bug. This was at a time when Atlanta was not as hot as it is now for film and TV, and I thought: ‘Well, if I’m really going to do this, I’ve got to move to New York or LA’. I moved up here and that’s how I got started! ”Tommy began his career as a professional performer, eventually moving backstage to work as a star dresser on Broadway, as a costume and wardrobe supervisor across film and TV, and as a dresser to movie megastar Richard Gere. He was hired in 1996 by Cheryl to work on the Gwyneth Paltrow and David Schwimmer helmed film The Pallbearer. “We hit it off, ” said Cheryl, and the two went on to work together on multiple films before deciding to open Manhattan Wardrobe Supply. It was on the set of one of these films — the iconic Nora Ephron New York rom-com You’ve Got Mail — that Tommy and Cheryl dreamed up the idea for a one-stop shop for busy designers used to running around the city looking for specialty items at a moment’s notice. On August 1, 1998, they opened the doors at Manhattan Wardrobe Supply and haven’t looked back. “People come to us because we are in the business and they know we’ll have what they need, ” said Tommy, “and if we don't have it, then we will either send you someplace else that does have it, or we'll find a way that we can bring it in for you. ” Setting up shop in Chelsea has allotted the team at Manhattan Wardrobe Supply a plum location for running a tube of fake blood over to the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd or a hair product to Only Murders in the Building. “One of our favorite things has always been being able to accommodate the needs of industry, ” said Tommy. “ You never know what someone's going to order — whether it will be three bottles of paint or 50 bottles of paint for the Metropolitan Opera! ” While they love helping fellow designers out, some of their favorite clients often come from the very low budget category. “I think it's fun to see people come in here all the time with projects — some of 'em are really bizarre, ” laughed Cheryl. “One time someone asked me how they could put an earring on a pig. I was like, ‘and how, how is it going to stay on the pig? ’ The challenge is to figure out how to help everyone, ” she added. “I love it when they send us pictures of the finished project — it’s really great to see what they've come up with, because people are really, really creative out there and they have some wild things that they're doing! ”
Upon entering the front room of Beads of Paradise, we were greeted by long strings of brightly colored beads, boldly patterned fabrics, and African art filling every inch of space. While this certainly makes for fun exploring, the magic really happens further back in the store, which is replete with thousands of beads and endless jewelry-making materials. Welcoming anyone from novices to experts, the shop holds regular beading classes on Sundays. What sets this store apart from others where beading materials, pre-made jewelry, or textiles are sold, is that they are serious about beads. Really serious. Glass cases throughout the shop are filled with beads from all over the world and all periods of history. We noticed a bowl of small bead fragments labeled with the location and date of Djenne (a town in Mali), 700 AD. We became quite curious and had to investigate further. After talking to Joe, one of the managers, not only were we convinced of the validity of the labels, but as people with no previous interest in beads, we were now hooked on this store. Joe knows everything about beads, and his passion is so clear that we could not help but get excited with him. He gave us the history of several of the oldest beads in the shop - the very oldest being warring state beads from China dating to 300 AD. He then proceeded to pull out his favorite books on beads and show us how they go about dating and validating the beads. Finally, we were whisked away with a fascinating discussion on early bead-making techniques and early man’s impulse for self-ornamentation. In the end, Molly purchased one of the original Djenne beads that had caught her attention - for a mere $3. 00. It was a tiny broken fragment, but still, the fact that a piece of history was made so accessible to her was extraordinary. Of course, for those able to spend more, there is a vast selection of much larger historical beads in beautiful condition. Beads of Paradise is sure to delight anyone with an appreciation for history, jewelry, or craft-making - and if Joe is around, we recommend engaging him in a conversation on ancient cultures.
La Marqueta, a retail and food market located underneath an elevated train track, is a vibrant space where people come to not only shop, but to sit and share their stories with one another. On the occasions that I have visited, I have witnessed the strong community felt by so many of the people spending time inside. This is, without a doubt, a venue that combines the arts, food and people in a beautiful way. Historically, La Marqueta has been a cultural staple of the Latino community of East Harlem. When it first was opened in 1936, it was a bustling economic and social center of the neighborhood. Later, it began to decline. Now, after recent efforts to revitalize the market, it houses a variety of specialty vendors and artists and regularly hosts community cultural events. When I entered, I was greeted by the smell of rising dough wafting through from Hot Bread Kitchen toward the back of the market. In addition to baking their own breads, HBK is a non-profit organization that invites startup food companies to use their kitchen facilities. On either side of the narrow walkways of the market, artists and vendors stood in their stalls, chatting, laughing, and working. As I strolled through, a stall filled with handmade dolls, jewelry, books and other curios caught my eye. This is where I met Mercedes. She told me that she was a single working mother of three when she began making her dolls. They were an instant hit and after she had created three for her own children, "suddenly everyone wanted one. " After a while, however, the work became overwhelming as every tiny face was hand stitched - but genius struck, as it tends to do. “My muse came to me again, ” recalled Mercedes, and she began to paint the faces instead. Today, people stop in to purchase her dolls for their children and grandchildren, as collectors’ items, and even for spiritual purposes. For this, Mercedes explained, she attaches a special panel of fabric at the top of the head through which people can put charms or talismans. Her stall at La Marqueta has now expanded to other items. Mercedes makes “piece dolls” from the leftover scraps of her bigger dolls, pins and magnets with two-dimensional images of her dolls. When a loyal customer told her “I want one for my baby’s hair, ” Mercedes began to make wearable dolls on pins and barrettes. Mercedes takes a great deal of pride in her craft, but similar to the other members of the community at La Marqueta, she is also very supportive of her fellow artists and vendors. On the back wall of her stall is a shelf she calls the “Artisan’s Bodega Exchange” where she showcases the work of her neighbors - from jewelry to books and much more. According to Mercedes, there is a tremendous sense of camaraderie at La Marqueta, and she feels that the community is in many ways a kind of family.
The Loop of the Loom, tucked below street level on 87th Street, is a center for SAORI weaving, a special practice that combines the art of weaving with the principles of Zen. The founder of Loop of the Loom, Yukako Satone, began her career as a graphic designer for fifteen years in both Japan and New York. She claims that she did not consider herself a “craft person” until she was introduced to SAORI weaving when her daughter was five years old. She became a certified SAORI instructor in Japan, thanks to a talented teacher, Misao Jo. Shortly thereafter, Yukako made the decision to open a studio in Manhattan, hoping to introduce this specific type of weaving to New Yorkers. The Loop of the Loom encourages anyone who walks through the door to find their own unique style while embracing earthy materials and the Japanese idea of “Mottainai" ("non-waste”). The threads are made from natural fibers and many of the tools are created from recycled materials. The repetitive, calming nature of the work is said to introduce mindfulness and healing to the weaver. When I visited Loop of the Loom, a group of young children were gathered for a special children’s class, celebrating a child's eighth birthday. It was a special sight to watch them calmly sitting at their looms, eager for their next instruction. In addition to her studio, Yukako often takes her portable loom out into the city to do demonstrations. She loves that her “happy weaving” can bring smiles and a sense of calm to passersby.
Led into a long hallway and down a flight of stairs by signs bearing "The Red Caboose, " I came into a basement full of what seemed every toy train part and accessory imaginable. In a small kiosk-like structure sat a man (and his cat on the counter in front of him) who was comparing acrylic and oil-based paints with a middle-aged gentleman. When his customer left, the man greeted me with a smile and a "Hello, how can I help you? " in a distinctively New York accent. Initially, I was speechless. I just needed a moment to take in what was surrounding me. I had grown up with one room in our basement dedicated to our electric train set. It had been years since I had seen anything close to resembling my fond childhood memories. That afternoon, I learned a lot about The Red Caboose and Mr. Allan J. Spitz, its owner. Although the Red Caboose opened in 1994, the No. 23 West location has had a hobby shop on its premises since 1946. The basement originally held the Model Railroad Equipment Corporation, run by Carmen "Ma" Webster. Ms. Webster got into the business because of her husband, the original owner of the store. When he left Ms. Webster, she decided to take over his store and learn everything there was to know about model train building. In a time when men dominated the hobby industry, Ms. Webster stood out as a female impresario. Undeterred by the hesitance of her male peers, Carmen Webster made a name for herself and was among the first to start selling spare nuts, bolts and parts to hobbyists who would have previously had to buy a completely new set in order to replace the pieces they were missing. Ms. Webster also began her own publication and boasted having the widest selection of model train-related items in the world. "If Ma Webster doesn't have it, no one does, " the saying goes. Ms. Webster stayed in the hobby business until 1973. Over the years, the space has changed hands a couple of times before Allan Spitz leased the location. Mr. Spitz had a passion for building warships growing up and found himself working at Polk's, a legendary hobby shop on Fifth Avenue. After spending a few years learning about the industry, he decided to leave with a couple of co-workers to open The Red Caboose. Today, Mr. Spitz is the only remaining partner of his original associates. He explained to me that during hobby shops' high water mark, there used to be four or five other places along 45th Street, but now, only The Red Caboose remains. Mr. Spitz recalls years past with fondness, saying that in its heyday, he had ten employees on payroll – now, there is usually only one other employee standing beside him. Mr. Spitz says that his customers are "old, older, and oldest, " describing hobby enthusiasts as an aging group of men who used to build model trains during their childhood. Back in the days of railroad workers, men, in between train shifts, would come during their lunch to pick up parts for their models. Nowadays, Mr. Spitz says that a good amount of his sales come from foreigners - especially Brazilians: "here in The Red Caboose, we only fly one flag, " he exclaimed, while waving a small Brazilian flag on a stick. Times have changed for hobbyists worldwide, but Mr. Spitz remains loyal and passionate about his cluttered and endearing hobby shop.