Claude-Noelle Toly came to the United States in 1982 after having received her master's degree in political science. Her original goal was to improve her English, but she could not help but fall in love with Manhattan. "Much to my mother's disappointment, I became a waitress in a tiny restaurant in the Village, ” Claude-Noelle confided. It was there, one day, that she met William Nuckel. They became fast friends and together shared a dream of traveling to the South of France on a regular basis to purchase items for a French shop. Shortly afterwards, a tiny little corner space in the West Village became available... that was also affordable. In 1987, they agreed that it was the perfect location and decided to give it a try. Built in the 1800s with three levels, the building is a perfect fit for the charming French boutique that houses antiques and collectibles. From traditional pottery and earthenware to folk art and colorful crystal chandeliers, everything about the shop is enchanting - and this includes the delightful partners. Over the years, during their trips abroad, the two have discovered many talented artisans who constantly remind Claude-Noelle of French farmers. She explained that "they are in their own little world working and producing special pieces, having very little communication with the outside world. " But, she continued, "They absolutely appreciate the fact that there is a shop in Manhattan that is selling their work. " I then learned that there is nowhere else in the States that carries their pottery. For that matter, the only other place in the world that does so is in France. In addition to the new pottery for which Le Fanion is known, the store also has a limited collection of both pottery and furniture that date back to the early and mid-1700s, alongside a larger number of items from the nineteenth century. When I revisited Claude-Noelle in 2016, she was still gushing about her longevity in the West Village and how she continues to love every minute of being on her special, quiet corner. She disclosed that there are two wonderful aspects of owning Le Fanion - traveling to the south of France several times a year, where she and William are able to interact with so many fascinating people "who have unexploited lifestyles, " and returning with new inventory to share with their customers. Claude-Noelle added that she finds it "kind of funny to think that we are a genuine organic store - we only sell wood and clay. " Who knew that they were so ahead of their time in the 1980s? "Today, everyone either tries or pretends to be organic... but we were doing it before many others, " Claude Noelle commented. After a pause, she said, "Wow, thirty years later, and we are still here - How can that be? " Claude-Noelle answered her own question: "What we sell attracts people who appreciate the quality and the stories behind the pieces. And, it continues to always be a nice moment. "
Twelve years ago, Peggy Clarke, one of the owners at La Mano Pottery, was working down south and decided to leave her job and move back to New York. Once settled, she picked up pottery as a hobby. Having become friendly with her partners to be, Julie Hadley and Diane Waller, while taking classes at La Mano (then on 18th Street), they made the decision to purchase the business together. Shortly after, they moved the pottery center to its current beautiful, airy location. The three have each brought their passion and individual skills to La Mano, allowing them to attract people from all over the city to their studio. Artists rent space to work, and at all hours you can see them peacefully in the corner "throwing clay" with their headphones on. Beginners take classes in pottery and jewelry making, and are given an equal amount of respect. The gorgeous work of resident artists is sold up front, and in back, people sit, either alone or clustered together, working the clay. La Mano Pottery feels like a peaceful haven, but most importantly, it feels like a community. Peggy stresses the importance of this, and her desire to create a perfect environment for artists - both professional and amateur - to work together and hang out. She told us how many people have become friends with one another through La Mano. "Creating a community has become a part of our craft, " she said with a smile. When La Mano Pottery moved into the building on 26th Street, it was an abandoned electrical company, impossibly dingy. It is now the largest independent pottery studio in the city, with six kilns and a burgeoning following. They have turned the space into an elegant, tranquil place where curious novices learn and play alongside expert crafts people.
The greatest treasures on the side streets often take the form of art studios, theaters, non-profits, innovative exercise spaces, and specialty lodging. I was delighted, therefore, to find all of these facilities inside the West Side YMCA. According to Wyndy Wilder Sloan, the senior director of the Y, I was not unlike numerous others who admitted to having had no idea that this extraordinary building existed on West 63rd. Sharing the fascinating history of the Y with me one morning while touring the building, Wyndy simply stated that not many people stroll down their street and those that do rarely notice what has been here since 1930. Wyndy was crowed that they have at least 5, 700 active members, 397 guest rooms, an off-Broadway theater, and an art space in addition to its vast array of fitness facilities. At the start, the Y even owned the McBurney School next door, which is still marked with a sign for "BOYS. " Wyndy informed me that the West Side Y is the largest YMCA in the country. My first stop on the tour was on the newly renovated tenth and eleventh floors to see the selection of guest rooms, which Wyndy described as "a hostel that is not a real hostel. " Wyndy shared with me that guests are frequently European travelers, mostly form the UK, with the average age between eighteen and twenty-four, but national youth groups, like the boy scouts, also take advantage of the facilities. Traipsing down the white walls marked with shapes in cheery bright colors and the names of countries from around the world, I peeked into a room and found a spotlessly clean bunk bed that had a view of Central Park. Descending down some flights, I went to the fitness floors, which were astonishing. There, I found enormous studios that offered classes from Aerobics to Zumba and everything in between. Learning that the YMCA "invented" basketball and volleyball, I gazed upon the spacious court encircled one floor up by an elevated track. When I commented on the spectacular racquetball courts, squash courts, and, particularly the original machinery still decorating the walls in the boxing room, Wyndy proudly admitted that they were available for promotional shoots. In the gym, I was met with one of the most enormous collection of ellipticals and treadmills I have ever seen. "You never have to wait for a machine, " Wyndy said. "We have every piece of equipment you can imagine, " and she went on to tell me that all Y's in the country lease their machines for three years so that they can easily update to new models. Through the clean, flower-filled women's locker room, I arrived at the magnificent pool. The space is a palace, decorated with red and yellow tiles in a stunning mosaic pattern. Wyndy explained that King Alfonso of Spain donated all the tiles to the Y as the building was being erected. Slipping inside to view the smaller pool - used more for classes and therapy sessions than for laps - was possibly even more extraordinary, with dazzling white and blue designs covering all four corners. Tearing myself away from the pools, I walked into the art annex to see a painting class in progress. Down the hall, students filled a ceramics studio that boasted two kilns. I now understood from where the cases full of colorful mugs for sale in the lobby hallway came. On my way to the "Little Theater, " which sported sloping bannisters and comfortable audience seating, I caught a glimpse of rounded traditional Spanish doors and more of the magnificent tiles in an event space named the "King Alfonso" room. After a whirlwind tour, where I saw so much original architecture, artistic craftsmanship, first-class facilities, and happy members, I was shocked that I had not heard more about the building as a lifelong New Yorker. Though I knew of its existence, I had no idea of all the valuable resources and facilities inside. Wyndy conceded that is a challenge that the West Side Y is trying to overcome: "When you're a landmark building on a side street, it's hard to maintain visibility. " It is, however, definitely worth seeking out. As Wyndy noted, "We are unique among other gyms because we are non-profit. When you sign up as a member, you know your money is going to a good cause. "