Shahrzad Ghajar, founder of the gift shop Spooksvilla + friends, takes curation to another level. She meets with each of the artists represented in the store and personally chooses every piece showcased on the walls and shelves. Shahrzad, herself, is a talented artist, and many of her designs are featured in the shop. By focusing on the artists, Spooksvilla ensures that everything for sale - from apparel to wall art - is one-of-a-kind. “We like to be representative of original people doing original things— be it art, products, charms or any other kind of cool item, " said Ethan Velez, manager of Spooksvilla. Despite the fact that multiple artists contribute to Spooksvilla, the store is not a hodgepodge of styles. Rather, the art is united in its bold, whimsical designs. A favorite is the label on the bottle of the rose bath salts - a piece of art in itself. A woman with purple skin and purple hair rides a pink dragon, holding, of course, roses.
One might think that they are walking into an upscale souvenir shop when first entering the Theatre Circle, as it is filled with I Love NY tee shirts, mugs, and other trinkets. Upon closer examination, however, there is a treasure trove of memorabilia waiting for the theater enthusiast. Back in 1978, the owners of this Broadway institution began peddling theater-related merchandise outside the nearby theaters on 44th. The business grew, and they were able to move into a space at One Shubert Alley, and later opened up this second shop in the 1990s. We stopped in and spoke with Craig, a self-proclaimed "great guy and general manager, " and were immediately struck by his passion for everything theatrical. He quickly ushered us into the back room where he proudly announced that it holds roughly ten thousand scripts of Broadway shows come and gone, as well as playbills, posters, music and so much more.
A dainty shop located on Extra Place - that little side street off of 1st Street where the Ramones photographed an Album Cover - Nalata Nalata features high quality décor sourced mainly from Japan. In the same way that Manhattan Sideways shares the stories of businesses on the sidestreets of Manhattan, Nalata Nalata, as their website explains, “is a retail experience founded on promoting awareness of the people and stories behind our curated lifestyle products. ”On my first visit to Nalata Nalata, I spoke with Angelique J. V. Chmielewski, who co-founded the business with her husband, Stevenson S. J. Aung. Originally from Alberta, Canada, Angelique came to New York to study fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology while Stevenson, her boyfriend at the time, fulfilled his masters in industrial design at the Pratt Institute. Nalata Nalata began as a website beautifully crafted to feature sections like Backstory, with write-ups on the brands behind the pieces, and Journal, detailing the journey and artistic endeavors through captioned photographs. In late 2013, Nalata Nalata opened in Extra Place as a pop-up store and, after falling in love with the spot, the owners decided to make it a permanent stay. Though functional in a traditional way, each product in the store contains intrinsic artistic and narrative values, many sourced from “multigenerational craftsmen who continue to refine their skill. ” Angelique first directed me to the porcelain Ju-Bakos, Japanese stacking boxes, which are traditionally used for food on special occasions. Representative of multilayered happiness, each box was crafted with a different glaze. Later, Angelique held up a glass terrarium box designed by 1012 Terra, a company based in Chiba, Japan that is focused on celebrating plant life. In the box was a dried flower reminiscent of the rose in Beauty and the Beast. “In order to preserve a flower, ” she explained, “pin it in the box and flip it upside-down. When it has completely dried out, it will be straight when turned upright. ”Though devoted to sharing the works of others, Nalata Nalata is cemented by the artistry of Angelique and Stevenson. From the custom-made cabinets to the slab roof ceiling, the two redesigned the entire interior of the store in the months before its opening, with the help of some additional hands. The carefully selected products perfectly complement the spare, bright space. The store's website also reveals a great deal of artistry, with each piece beautifully photographed, set to a white background, and matched with a whimsical remark and a few lines about its origins, making online shopping more homey and intimate. The wool blankets exclaim, “Cool nights, brisk mornings, frigid afternoons. Whatever weather the day may bring I’m a tried-and-true, dyed-in-the-wool cozy friend… Always by one’s side to provide warmth and comfort. ”Nalata Nalata is also working on their own line of products. One recent addition, the denim Ojami, bridges Japanese traditions and contemporary American design. Handmade in Kyoto, the Ojami are versatile pillows. Angelique and Stevenson enjoy using them as seats to “live low, ” but they also function as throw pillows. In the future, the couple hopes to get into more denim and hardware products, while continuing to curate objects they appreciate artistically and sentimentally. For now, Angelique says, “We are just happy to be here. ”
Choices tries to help anyone looking to improve his or her life while also offering different paths to recovery for its varied clientele. Jay DePaolo discovered Choices Books & Gifts shortly after it was sold by the original owners, a doctor and a nurse, who opened the store in 1989 to help the 12-step community. Jay came in while shopping with a friend, who said, “Wouldn’t it be great to own something this cute and adorable? ” Unfortunately, or fortunately for Jay, the new management was having trouble keeping the business afloat and wanted to sell. Jay’s friend set up a meeting. Jay did not have the finances to purchase Choices, but he had a clear vision for the store and was a savvy businessman, having owned Italian restaurants in the past. Miraculously, he met a potential investor, and after knowing Jay for only a day, the man loaned him the money to take over Choices in 2002. Within two years, Jay was pleased to tell me that he managed to bring the store back from the brink of failure. When I asked Jay what some of the immediate changes that he made were, he said it was as simple as moving some of the merchandise around, allowing the space to feel more airy and welcoming, rather than cluttered and claustrophobic. He also added an online side to the business. Arguably the biggest change was that Choices became less focused on the 12-step and therapy world, and more broadly applicable to “anyone who’s on a quest. ” Jay added, “We’re all in search of something. ”I recognized Jay's commitment to his bookshop immediately and the extreme fulfillment he gets from the business. He told me that people continually stop by to share their appreciation and offer comments like “I want to thank you, you saved my little brother’s/cousin’s/sister’s life. ” Choices is not just a retail store: the staff chats with any customer who needs advice or a willing ear and attempts to help them on the road to recovery. In 2016, some fourteen years after Jay took over the shop, he is now able to speak at length about different methods and tools that people can use to better themselves. He was quick to point out, however, that he was not always so knowledgeable. He said that he had entered the business essentially blind and had to learn about it from within. Most of his education came from his suppliers who willingly told him about the purpose of each product. And he continues to learn from customers by talking to them about books they have purchased in the past and what paths have worked for them. “I owe everything to others, ” he admitted. “Most of the stuff in here has a meaning, ” Jay went on to say, rattling off the names of jewelry and candles, which he now knows by heart. The shelves are chock full of books for both people in addiction programs and “civilians” - the word for people not directly affected by addiction. He has everything from general daily readers filled with affirmations to crystals and tarot cards used by a more select group. Some of his staff offer different sorts of readings to customers who request them as another aid in their personal therapy. “It really is a little treasure, ” Jay said after walking me through the store. He spoke to me about what a pleasure it is to come to Choices everyday, saying, “I skip to work! ” As I was leaving, Jay shared one of his favorite ideas to live by: “Serenity isn’t peace from the storm, but amid the storm. ” It was an apt expression for a calm little store in a bustling city.
We love browsing around this eclectic gift shop whenever we are on 9th. It is clear that Urte Tylaite, the very sweet owner has a keen eye for a clean, minimalist aesthetic and a slant toward natural and organic shapes. Here one can find unique home goods, such as delicate glass-blown vases and ceramics crafted by local and international artists. We are particularly fond, however, of Urte's tasteful selection of jewelry. There is also a small collection of paper goods that includes books, notebooks, prints, and postcards. On one visit to Still House, we were delighted to meet Urte's mom who confirmed for us the careful consideration that her daughter puts into choosing the artists and craftspeople whose work is on display. It is apparent to us that it is "passion, not investment" that makes this store as special as it is.
Tucked in the heart of the East Village, Random Accessories is a small and colorful treasure chest of hundreds of gift items that “you can send to anyone, anytime”, according to Lynn, the owner. From greeting cards to jewelry and hip T-shirts, Lynn has been committed to offering customers a diverse range of gifts since 1996. With extensive experience in jewelry buying and retail (as a manager for Brookstone), Lynn knows the formula for a good gift business: “Make it interesting and make it reasonably priced”. While Lynn, a local New Yorker, admits that she did not have a “clear, set idea” for the business when she started Random Accessories, she mentioned that over time the pieces started falling together into the cheerful and rich concept it is today. Her objective is to help people find the perfect gift, no matter the circumstances, whether they are on their way to a party or buying for a special occasion like Valentine’s Day. The key to such a goal for Lynn is variety of product. “We always have different items” Lynn said. One of the store's more plentiful areas is the baby gift section. Lynn explained that a “baby boom” of sorts over the last twelve years has made infant and toddler gifts extremely popular items. But Lynn stresses that the mix of goods is always changing, and when asked about potential new items in the future, her reply was energizing and straightforward: “We’re not limited by anything except what fits in the store”.
After making frequent trips to Mexico and being unable to stay there as she wished, Dina Leor decided to do the next best thing: She brought Mexico to New York. Her success is evident upon walking into the store: Everything is covered in paper flowers and bright colors, enough to lift the spirits of any New Yorker wandering in on a gray day. A Lilliputian party of skeletal characters dance on a shelf for Día de los Muertos and little metal charms called “Milagros” or “miracles” cover many of the pieces. Dina carries everything from simple keychains and children’s toys to elaborate folk art, but each piece has a special meaning, often explained by little handwritten cards on the shelves. Dina is an artist herself: she used to make colorful boxes. When she opened La Sirena in 1999, she was essentially creating a bigger box: A box housing art and culture. She calls it her “evolving assemblage, ” a “living altar. ”La Sirena attracts all sorts of people. While I was visiting, there was a Swiss family browsing, straight from the airport. Since Dina’s was the first store they had found, they gave her a little box of Swiss chocolates. Many of Dina’s customers, however, are regulars, and Mexicans themselves. While spending time with Dina, she told me how a Mexican man had walked in and started weeping, because the store reminded him of his grandmother and he had not been able to go home to visit her. The store is “an umbrella of the republic, ” Dina says, and many regions of Mexico are represented. Dina went on to tell me another story, while explaining that she carries items from $2 to $500. One day she had a Mexican mother come in and gush over the merchandise. The woman wanted to get something for her four children, but only had a twenty-dollar bill. Dina helped her find four hand-made items and felt very proud when the cash register read “$19. 60. ” Some of the pricier pieces in the store come from the expatriate New Yorker Sue Kreitzman, a cookbook writer-turned-artist, whose work is celebrated in England, where she now resides. She uses echoes of Mexican folk art in her work. La Sirena provides her with many materials and is proud to feature her art. The history and familial meaning behind all the art is fascinating: Dina explained to me that in Mexico, life and art are not clearly separated. Artistic items are often family efforts, and children will frequently come home from school in the afternoon and help paint or sculpt or craft. The art is “handmade by beautiful people: ” when she travels around Mexico, people welcome her into their home and give her tortillas to represent reciprocal warmth. One of the most beautiful sights that she has seen on her travels was a woman breast-feeding while making clay pieces at the home of Josefina Aguilar, now well-known in the folk art community. “It’s part of the circle of life, ” Dina says: making art among nature, raising children, and teaching them the same artistic passions. Dina herself is part of this circle of life: As the adopted daughter of Mexico, she is continuing its artistic traditions and teaching them, in turn, to New Yorkers.
A symbol of the neighborhood’s vibrant Ukrainian legacy, Arka has occupied varying East Village corners since 1951. Stepping into the E 2nd Street store is akin to taking a direct flight to Kyiv - Ukrainian folk music plays softly in the background amidst stockpiles of hand-embroidered clothes, delicately painted household goods and jewelry from the Eastern European nation. According to the owners, Arka’s clientele includes locals who are Czech, Albanian, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian. “The embroidery is my favorite, ” said co-owner Maria Drobenko, as we padded through the shop’s treasure trove of handmade goods. If you’re looking to support Ukraine and pick up a unique gift (we recommend the “name” mugs for an Eastern European spin on the classic NYC tourist tchotchke) look no further than Arka — where Ukrainian craftsmanship lives on in Alphabet City.