Woodard & Greenstein Antiques, featuring Woodard Weave rugs, is one in a small handful of survivors on the Upper East Side. In a city where businesses often sadly close within ten years of opening, Thomas Woodard and Blanche Greenstein have managed to stay in the neighborhood, providing a niche market of antique quilts and rugs, since 1972. The store, however, has been nomadic during their forty plus years in business. Starting on the second floor of 73rd and Lexington, the shop then moved to 69th and Madison, where Tom and Blanche took a window in the Westbury hotel and caught the eye of international travelers. They followed this by moving to 67th and Madison across from the Westbury hotel, and then to a larger space on 74th and York where they relied on destination shoppers, but had a beautiful view of the East River. When the rent was raised in that building, they discovered an available space in 2015 and moved into their current 81st Street location near Second Avenue. Tom said, "It's tiny for us, but great." He added that old customers, who may not have visited Woodard Weave for decades, frequently stumble upon them at their new address saying, "What are you doing here?" Blanche nodded, mentioning how much people love coming in to meet the owners. "Nothing replaces personal contact with customers."
Before they went into the antique quilt business, Blanche was a stylist for photographers and Tom managed the Box Office at the Public Theater. During this time, Blanche would travel around the country collecting quilts. She did it as a hobby before Tom joined her. A show by Jonathan Holstein at the Whitney Museum in 1971 provided the catalyst to launch the two friends into business together. Blanche told me that the show was called "Abstract Design in American Quilts" and it demonstrated how old quilts could be fine art. She also mentioned walking by a window on Madison Avenue where the store was using antique quilts as props. She realized that there was a demand for "America's favorite folk art" and that people were beginning to see the artistic merit of quilts.
Tom and Blanche, part of the Alliance for American Quilting, have always specialized in quilts that span the 1820s to the twentieth century, though most come from the heavy quilting period from 1850-1895. Blanche took out one of the first quilts she ever bought, a Mennonite quilt from Pennsylvania dating back to 1880. She also showed me a picture of one of her favorite quilts, made right after the Civil War. She had just posted a square of the quilt on Instagram for Martin Luther King Day in which an embroidered black man states, "Master, I am free." Blanche says that many of the beautiful quilts that come her way are in fantastic condition because they were families' best quilts, and therefore rarely used. Though it is difficult to trace every quilt back to its source after two centuries, occasionally the pieces will stay in the same family, meaning that at least the last name of the artist will be known. Blanche confided that one of the main reasons why she likes quilts is because they mark time in a family's history: they were often created to celebrate births, marriages, and other family events.
Though Blanche and Thomas have a fine reputation in the antique quilt world, they have also become known for Woodard Weave, a collection of rugs they created based on the old rugs that they have been gathering since the 1980s. "These rugs can go with all decors," Tom pointed out - the simple, striped pieces can look good in both mission and mid-century modern households. Though most of their rugs are newly made, since rugs go through more wear and tear, they are all inspired by designs from the nineteenth century. Blanche mentioned that at one point they sold rag carpets, which families would make from the scraps left over from their quilting. "It was the last step in recycling," she quipped, adding that Woodard Weave made it into New York Magazine's "Best Bets" section, thanks to their rag rugs.
Rugs and carpets are not the only textiles that these two friends collect: As we were descending the stairs, they pointed out a group of campaign bandanas. These head pieces were given away before bumper stickers were invented. Woodard & Greenstein have a bandana from Teddy Roosevelt on the wall, among others that came from a collector in Chicago. Tom indicated that they are particularly popular among men. "They are textile snapshots of history." He then told me that he and Blanche once loaned their bandana collection to Bergdorf Goodman for their President's Day windows.
A picture in a magazine gave me yet another glimpse into one of Blanche and Tom's projects: restoring houses. For a number of years they have been rescuing old houses and barns in the Hamptons that are in danger of being destroyed and fill them with antiques, rugs, and quilts. They have local carpenters renovate each house and then "test" them by living in them. In a sense they do to houses what they have been doing to textiles for many years: breathing new life into them.
When I asked Howard Nowes, the owner of Art for Eternity, what the oldest piece in his gallery was, he led me over to a Mesopotamian statue dating back 3500 years. It was pure white and had a circular design on top like eyes, signifying that it was meant to represent the All Seeing God. I never would have expected to find such an antique, ancient and steeped in history, in a small shop on a side street, but Howie's store was filled with such items. He took me around his shop, pointing out pieces from Southeast Asia, Europe, and South America. I learned that Howie had taken a "grand tour" of the world after graduating from Skidmore with a Fine Arts degree and had fallen in love with the ancient antiques that he discovered. He considers himself lucky that he entered the antiquities business when he did, since issues of patrimony have now come to the forefront of cultural-political discourse and UNESCO has started cracking down on removing antiquities from their original homes. Howie began working in a gallery with other dealers downtown. After establishing himself there, he set off on his own. In addition to experience in the antiques market, he has also spent time on digs, unearthing the antiquities himself. He told me that his business was struggling until the late 1990s when the internet offered him new ways to reach out to collectors and find interested customers. He was one of the first dealers to be featured on the Sotheby's website. Being on a side street has helped Howie in unexpected ways. Neighbors will often think of him when they have pieces they want to sell. For example, Howie told me that one local came in with an African mask that his aunt left to him in her will. The man explained that he frequently walks by Art for Eternity, and so Howie was the first person he thought of when the mask fell into his hands. Walk-ins, however, are rare. As Howie joked, not many people step out to "pick up a gallon of milk and an African mask. ""The world of antiquities is fascinating, since history repeats itself, " Howie declared. Referring to the All Seeing God statuette, he pointed out that it often catches the eye of contemporary art collectors, because it seems abstract. Howie loves that almost everything that is referred to as an "antiquity" has a purpose. They rarely exist solely because of a whim of an artist, but often play a role in religion, politics, or home life. He has become interested in marking the patterns of what tends to draw customers. For example, "captains of industry" tend to buy antique wagon wheels and spears. Howie's personal favorite part of the world of antiquities is Roman marble pieces, though he also has a fondness for pre-Columbian gold, since that is what his wife prefers. He also spoke at length about the cleverness of African art and how each mask and totem has a rich history of use in ceremonies and rituals. He then guided me to the lower level of his shop, filled with wooden African art and books. I could have spent hours in the room, where there is something fascinating on every shelf. "This is a reputable gallery that's in it for the long run, " Howie declared. He showed me the Art Loss Register, where gallery owners can guarantee that their pieces have never been stolen and come from reputable sources. He likes to join his customers on their "personal journey" and make sure that they never feel buyer's remorse. Though Howie's collectors come to him from every corner of the world, he notices that he does not see many young customers. He has seen a trend in the younger generations spending money on experiences rather than items, especially in New York, where most residents have very little space in their apartments. He encourages the younger generation to explore his shop, regardless: "People experience a sense of discovery when they come in" he told me. "Everything has a story. "
"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! "
Gary Scheiner, the owner of Gentlemen's Resale, is supremely proud of being in business for over twenty years. He began his shop in 1992 with help from his mother-in-law, Myrna Skoller, who owned Designer Resale next door (which has since become Designer Revival). At the time, Gary was working in construction after receiving a teaching degree during a time when no teaching positions were available. As is still the case, there were not many men's consignment stores. Gary explained to us that many shops sold men's clothing, but rarely exclusively and usually only a few racks at a time. His mother-in-law gave him what men's items she had and Gary was pleased to find that he soon had a loyal band of customers - from tourists to recent graduates who needed interview outfits. Today, close to twenty-five years later, he still attracts a wide range of individuals. On the day that I visited, Gary informed me that he had just had a customer who sought him out after getting off a plane from his native Australia. "Someone visited me from the other side of the planet, " Gary said in disbelief. As for what he credits his success to, he has always had spotlessly ethical policies. "You can't survive twenty-three years if you're not honest, " he said when I visited in 2015. He also thanks the neighborhood, pointing out that there are many gentlemen who have excellent taste in clothes who live in the area and that they often need to give things away for the sake of storage. He is continuously pleased with the clothes that he receives. For example, he showed us a Berlutti overcoat made of baby llama worth about $10, 000-$15, 000, and went on to say that he has a storeroom full of high priced items. It also helps that Gary has a good eye. "I know clothes, " he admitted. I believe, however, that it is Gary's warm and friendly relationship with his customers that plays an important role in his success. He has a very strong mailing list and makes a point of being on a first name basis with people who come by more than once or twice. Gary also has a reasonable consignment system, which probably explains why many men return. He holds onto items for ninety days and splits all earnings fifty-fifty with the provider. There is a clearly marked color-coded tier for how the price of an item drops each month. Clothes must arrive dry-cleaned and Gary tries to keep his stock current (within two to three years), though he has been known to take one or two vintage pieces in very special circumstances. I was most impressed with how well organized the space is, with easily viewable racks. It is clear that Gary takes pride in his work. "We get consignments every day, " he said, and joked that some loyal customers will not tell friends that Gentlemen's Resale exists, for fear of shopping competition. When I asked Gary if he still loved the business after so many years, he replied in true New York fashion, "It's tough work. I don't know if I love it, " and then paused before confirming, "Yeah, I love it! "
When I walked into Book Nook, I thought I had stepped inside a children’s novel. Intrigued, I began to look around at the leafy, artificial vines hanging from the low ceiling like verdant Christmas lights, complementing the trees and birds painted on the walls. I walked by the fireplace in the corner, surrounded by stacks and stacks of colorful books, noticing the paintings, toys, and tiny, pastel-colored models of houses and bicycles adorning the shelves. I asked Rina Patel-Collins, the effervescent young founder, to tell me the story behind Book Nook. To begin with, Rina told me that she believes that designing the space where children learn is as important as what they learn. She carefully created Book Nook’s beautiful interior in order to make sure that “from the moment they walk in, children want to be here. ” I think that she has succeeded: There was something immensely calming about the space that made me want to curl up with a book. Rina led me through the hallway and into a similar room that had bright colors, vibrant and child-friendly décor, paintings, and, of course, rows upon rows of books. It was in here that I found children sitting around small, circular tables, engaged in lively conversation as an instructor shared a picture book with them. Armed with degrees in elementary and early child education, a Master’s in teaching literacy, and a certificate in handwriting education, Rina taught at public schools in New Jersey for many years before she moved to Manhattan and became the director of a pre-school. While she taught pre-k, kindergarten and first grade, she started to zero in on “the gap between each grade. ” She recognized that children have different needs and various styles of learning. “I’ve learned throughout the years that all children are at different levels, even if they are at the same age, ” she said. Even though the idea for Book Nook started brewing during her four years as a pre-school director, the seed for the project was officially planted when Rina began tutoring privately in homes - she realized how beneficial it was that children were learning one-on-one in a home setting. She also noticed that there was a void in the market for an enrichment program that was based in academics, rather than solely in the arts. “Reading is an enrichment, too, and we have to teach children that early on: That it’s not something you do just to learn things, you have to innately love it, ” she passionately explained to me. And so began Book Nook: a one-day-a-week, holistic enrichment program for children from the age of eighteen months to seven years. Rina begins by concentrating on skills such as fine motor development, separation, confidence, and teaching children how to sit at a table and remain focused. By the time they leave the program, they are confident enough to read with proper reading comprehension and write (in both uppercase and lowercase) on their own. Every aspect of the Book Nook program draws from Rina’s in-depth experience teaching young children. There are only five children at a time, and the youngest and oldest members of a group are within six months of each other, in the hopes that they are hitting the same milestones in a similar time-frame. Rina feels that this helps facilitate peer learning. Interestingly, Book Nook has no toys; instead, Rina likes the “wall-to-wall books” ambience, so that children are visually surrounded by a variety of books. “First, children learn to read through pictures, and then they move onto decoding familiar words, ultimately becoming able to read independently, ” Rina said succinctly. “The key is to bridge the gap between the three by providing students with books they’re interested in. ” To this end, Rina provides each parent with carefully handpicked booklists with a combination of new books and classics. When Rina told me that she had made many of the lovely, eclectic little pieces that adorn the walls and shelves of Book Nook, I was amazed. Just when I thought she could not have any more feathers in her cap, it turned out that she was an artist, too! She pointed to one of the walls, which was covered with a grid of small, square paintings, each bearing a letter of the alphabet and a portrait of a corresponding animal: Rina made each painting herself. In front of her office is a large wooden scale, with notches to measure kids’ heights. It was exquisite. I thought for sure that this was store-bought, but Rina assured me with a cheerful shrug, “I didn’t want to spend a $100 on it... so I made it myself! ”As of the Summer of 2016, Rina is looking forward to opening a second location in Tribeca. I asked her how she has the energy to do everything herself, from designing her curriculum and her space to working with the children, and she joked: “I don’t sleep. ” Then she laughed and said that she is so passionate about her job that it never feels like work. “I told myself that whenever I start my own school or business, I’d make it so I’d want to be here all the time, and if I want to be here all the time, then the kids will want to be here all the time. ” Looking around Book Nook, I can confirm that she has achieved her dream.