Whenever I discover a craft shop, I am surprised and pleased by the creativity and sense of neighborhood connection inherent in each enclave. Woolworks Needlepoint is no exception. It was an absolute pleasure speaking with partners Amanda Keep and Andrea Fonyo and learning how they met and realized their dream of owning this fantastic business.
Amanda and Andrea both worked for the two founders of Woolworks, which opened on Madison Avenue in 1963. Amanda had come to New York from Bedfordshire, England to attend Parson's School of Design, where she received a Fine Arts degree. In 1992, upon graduation, Amanda was hoping to find a job that would allow her to use her artistic abilities. She had the good fortune of meeting the then-owner of Woolworks. The former owner taught Amanda everything that she needed to know to be a painter in the needlepoint world, including proportions, half drop, and flat design. Andrea, on the other hand, had always adored Woolworks. She was working as a fashion photographer when a friend who was managing Woolworks asked if she could fill in for someone who was going on vacation. Andrea immediately replied, "Of course I will." For quite some time following this experience, she continued to work both of her jobs. In 2000, she left her photography job and took over the shop with Amanda. In 2009, they moved to their present, very cozy space on East 81st.
The two women expressed their pride in the fact that Woolworks uses all American materials, saying, "Stem to stern, everything is completely made in the U.S." They went on to tell me that unlike other needlepoint shops, everything that they sell they create. Over the years, the ladies have been recognized by many magazines including House Beautiful, who referred to them as "The Rolls Royce of Needlepoint."
"Geometrics tend to sell first," Amanda informed me. "They're the learner, the gateway." When I asked Amanda her favorite kind of designs, she responded "petit point," a type of pattern using close, diagonal stitches. Glancing around the shop, I discovered not only the many pillows and rugs available to be needlepointed, but a variety of other items that could be embroidered, from eye glass cases to shoes and antique stools. I was most impressed, however, when Amanda began showing me some of the larger pieces that she has created over the years. Draped over the table where she was working was a long, colorful tapestry based on a pattern from an antique afghan rug. She also pulled out an eight foot long piece with swirling fish drawn from a book depicting twentieth century Korean tapestries. This was something that she was working on for a specific customer. Amanda keeps a substantial collection of references. She pointed out a design based on a Victor Vasarely piece, saying, "I pull from everywhere and I steal from the best." I was delighted to find a pillow sketched from a drawing that Andrea had made as a child. When I mentioned that I would love to see the drawings that Amanda had done as a youngster, she smiled and replied, "When I was young, I wanted to be a gas station attendant."
While continuing my tour around the room, Amanda shared some of her tips. For example, she always suggests simplifying designs. "Too much detail doesn't work." She also informed me that large items, like 8 x 8 rugs, must be done in pieces and sewn together. In addition, Amanda told me that she is able to paint designs on other materials, like silks. Andrea then shared some fun pieces that the women had been asked to design over the years. Dominick Dunne, the prolific writer for Vanity Fair, asked them to design crime-themed pillows, while another woman requested that they make numerous pillows depicting the covers from both the New York Post and the Daily News. I had to laugh out loud when they told me about one with an illustrated Bill Clinton that said "well hung." Andrea said, "So much that we do is untraditional, but that is what makes it such fun."
Amanda and Andrea truly appreciate that crafts have begun to make a comeback, since there was a substantial chunk of time when people stopped being interested in needlepoint. Surveying the room full of unique patterns, bright colors, and intricate designs, Amanda remarked, "There was a generational shift and I'm standing on the top of it...but I take things one step further. This is not your grandmother's needlepoint."
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.