“It’s about being raised in Africa,” says Nnennaya Onyejuruwa, the owner of Ashione Gallery, referring to the meaning and purpose behind her shop. Any visitor to Ashione, tucked at the back of Flea Market Antiques and Collectibles, is guaranteed a warm welcome from Nnennaya and possibly one of her grown daughters, Ugonma and Ivuoma. Nnennaya told me that in Nigeria, where she is from, and in many other parts of Africa, “it really took a village to raise you." Because of that, Nnennaya finds herself constantly thinking about the close-knit community of her homeland. When her daughters were born, she wanted to make sure that they had the same sense of second home and extended family network, a desire and drive that eventually formed the foundations of Ashione Gallery.
In 1972, Nnennaya moved to New York with her then-husband. She studied at Columbia University and City College and then worked as an early childhood specialist for twenty-one years. Nnennaya chose to work with young children in the community rather than the education system, since that is where she believed she was most needed. Even though her own children would go through the American school system and grow up as New Yorkers, Nnennaya made sure that they did not forget their roots. She always emphasized the proper pronunciation of their names, explaining, “Everyone else will fudge on your name, so you must not.”
Nnennaya is probably best known for what she accomplished in her last six years as a childcare worker, which she spent in the court system. She related to me how she saw an ad in the newspaper by Victim Services Agency for a specialist to work with children. These young ones, who were from families going through the legal process, often suffered from abuse or the debilitating effects of growing up in a highly stressful family environment. Whereas most of her colleagues would not consider the job, citing the fact that children need stability and repetition (something that does not exist in the court system), Nnennaya, in her own words, said “Give them to me.” She ran the center from 1983-1989, marshaling court resources and the community at large. She even instituted a food pantry for families at risk of losing their children due to lack of food in the house while waiting for welfare to kick in. Nnennaya ran her program with help from community volunteers,including many retired specialists or students, who worked with the children. The programs were so successful that the Roxbury District Court in Boston asked for her assistance in opening a similar service. The judges were very appreciative of the programs, and Nnennaya was nominated by a Bronx Family Court judge to receive the 1989 Professional Special Citation, a country-wide award given annually by the National Labor Committee in honor Lewis Hine. Nnennaya proudly claims as a legacy the fact that she was able to institute the first three Court based Children Centers in the Boroughs of New York, services still being enjoyed by distressed families to this day. Many newly built court houses now also contain Children's Centers.
Understandably, Nnennaya felt “burnt out” after twenty-one years and turned her attention to her own children. One of her main difficulties in raising her daughters was “finding art that spoke of them.” The story that was told in all the museums that she took them to was very Euro-centric, so she began finding and collecting her own art, often taking trips back to Africa. The art proved to be popular among many people besides her children, including friends from the United Nations who visited her home. Ultimately, she was encouraged to open Ashione Gallery. “It came out of a need to stabilize my children,” she added, smiling. For many years, the gallery resided in the West Village (first on Perry Street and then on West 4th Street), but in its seventeenth year, 2008, the economy failed. Nnennaya decided to close and reopen in a place where she could share space. She moved to a corner of the indoor flea market on 25th Street and has slowly expanded, taking over the whole back room.
“We wanted a store of African Life,” Nnennaya stated, explaining that the gallery not only features African art and jewelry, but also invokes a sense of the African spirit. Nnennaya and her daughters greet everyone with the warmth of an African village – “We make people feel proud of whoever they are.” The women also occasionally hold events where they serve African food. “You become immersed in African culture in our shop,” Nnennaya told me. The unique nature of the space has earned the gallery some very positive attention, including an exposure of their objects in the New York Times and a feature in one of the episodes of Sex and the City. “We are the “It” store for African works of art,” Nnennaya proudly announced.
Though pleased by the attention of television and the media, Nnennaya appears to be equally moved by the special experiences that ordinary shoppers have in her store. She told me that one woman, who was a nurse in Miami, discovered Ashione Gallery while visiting New York. Three years later, the woman returned, waving the gallery’s business card. She had held onto it all that time, eager to come back one day. Another woman bought a pair of earrings at Ashione when the store was still in the Village. When she visited again a few years later, she was crestfallen that the store was no longer there. Luckily, she found the new address and showed up in her earrings, filled to the brim with stories to tell Nnennaya about all the compliments she had received whenever she wore them. These were only two of a myriad of stories in which people have formed a true connection with Ashione Gallery.
There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the real reason that people go out of their way to reconnect with the gallery is the nature of its owner. Nnennaya is a fascinating, bright woman who exudes warmth and friendship. No one can possibly leave Ashione without lifted spirits and the strong desire to want to visit again.
When I asked Jacob Farber, the administrator and finance manager of the Center for Book Arts, what stood out to him as the most quintessential part of this fascinating company, he responded without hesitation: "We teach book binding and letter press classes." He continued, "We even have hot rubber stamping machines. We are also a place for artists to come and learn how to make a book incorporating their own art." Jacob encouraged me to walk through the space and check out what The Center for Book Arts has to offer.Every aspect of this third floor space is dedicated to the art and the appreciation of books in all of its forms. Opened in 1974, the non-profit Center is the first of its kind, devoting its entire attention to books. In addition to the classes that are held, there are on-going art exhibitions. As the owner of a bookstore for many years, I found my time spent on the third floor of this West 27th Street building to be absolutely fascinating. I was afforded the opportunity to learn firsthand about yet another aspect of the book business.
The School of Visual Arts, a fine arts institute, has buildings scattered throughout Manhattan. At this particular location, however, they regularly display artwork from current and recently graduated MFA students. The MFA program has a rather "democratic" focus. We found all of the art to be accessible, both through its presentation and its inspiration, and we felt as though popular and familiar visual mediums were emphasized. Comics and infographics shared the same walls with more classical line drawings. Signage and 3D were brought to the level of high art and another room hummed with the electricity of four television monitors playing loops. Although the gallery space is small, the pieces, themselves, were charged with ready and apparent meaning due to their use of popular visual media.
Established in 1874, Westpfal continues to provide premium knives and tools for leatherwork, as well as to sharpen high-end knives for restaurants across New York City. The leather tools available are of the same ilk as the 1930s tools available oh-so-many years ago and are used by fashion designers from Coach to Dooney & Burke. On any given day, one can stop by and find a regular New Yorker, or even folks from out of town, coming in to have their own knives and scissors sharpened by the highly regarded team of workers.When the Manhattan Sideways stopped in for a visit during the summer of 2017, we had the pleasure of meeting Carmilla Wigman, who has been working at Henry Westpfal for over sixty-five years. She was kind enough to share some of the history of the shop. Carmilla pointed out a display board of vintage cutlery from 1931, which she referred to as “her pride and joy.” She also showed us a pair of scissors that was previously owned by John F. Kennedy Jr. and were used in the ribbon cutting ceremony for the reopening of Grand Central Station in 1998. Westpfal now rents these scissors out for similar ceremonies.Unfortunately, one can no longer watch and wait as knives are put on the machines, as they have had to move their factory to New Jersey. It is an example of the age-old story: Rent became a factor on the side streets of Manhattan for Westpfal.Who are their biggest clients almost 150 years later? The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) is, as students majoring in leather purchase tools for crafting handbags, belts, and shoes, and numerous chefs who frequent Westpfal to have their personal knives sharpened.
With all the centers we have discovered dedicated to children, pets, students, and shoppers, it was refreshing and intriguing to come upon Senior Planet – “the country’s first technology themed center for over-60s.” The center offers courses, skill-shares, workshops, special events and lecture series that help senior citizens deal with the ever-changing technological world. 22 computers, 3 Skype stations, a gaming area, a projector, mobile devices and a lounge create a space that one might think is fit for a youngster, but is, in fact, the perfect space for the senior folks. “Aging with attitude” is their motto. Computer basics, advanced computing, introduction to the iPad, digital photography, social networking and more are all taught in a welcoming environment. What a brilliant concept!