Erika, one of our photographers, said upon entering Big Bag, "It's always fun to take pictures of a place that is already entirely photogenic." Bright colored bags are lined up in spectral rows, the smell of soft leather permeates throughout, and accessories glint from all corners of this charming shop. I met Sang Lee, the owner, and her husband, who have been selling bags on 72nd Street since 2009. Before that, their boutique was located in Greenwich Village. Sang told me that while she has gained quite a few new local clients, she also has many loyal customers who have followed her to the Upper West Side.
Sang focuses on accessories. In addition to handbags and wallets, she sells a lot of hats and gloves in the wintertime. She used to carry luggage, but as she explained, "There's now too much competition." Luckily, though, Sang has the advantage that many of her items cannot be found in department stores or online. She imports about ninety percent of her stock directly from Italy and France. She is especially proud of her lightweight bags: She explained that many of her clients, who are often women over the age of fifty, appreciate bags that do not add extra weight to their shoulders.
When I visited Tip Top Shoes in the summer of 2015, the store was celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary. Danny Wasserman proudly showed me the most recent edition of Footwear News, which was essentially dedicated to Tip Top. There were messages from countless sponsors in the shoe world, congratulating the Wasserman family for their longevity. Sitting down with Danny and his children, Lester and Margot, who are in charge of West NYC and Tip Top Kids respectively was an absolute pleasure.Having grown up just a block away, Lester and Margot were immersed in the business even as toddlers. In high school, both began working at the store with their dad. Lester was immediately drawn into the world of shoes, learning as much as he could with the ultimate goal of opening his own sneaker shop, West NYC, a few doors down. Lester explained to me that Tip Top already sold sporty designer men's shoes, but that he expanded this concept into a trendier store in 2007. Margot, on the other hand, knew that she wanted to work in retail, but began her career with Ralph Lauren. She stayed there through the dot-com revolution and then returned to work for her father.Included in the copy of Footwear News was a picture of how the store looked decades ago. Display cases took up the first few feet on either side of the door. Danny's grandfather originally opened the store after coming to the United States from Israel. He chose to buy the little shoe shop, which had been uptown in Riverdale, from an elderly German couple. The family then moved the store to 72nd Street. "Things were very different," Danny explained to me. "People were less affluent, there were fewer options, and every shoe in the store was in the window." He told me that at one point there were two black shoes and two brown shoes for men, and that was what customers had to choose from. Expanding on the neighborhood's history, Danny said that the street was frequented by pimps. "We had white boots with fur at the time that we couldn't keep in stock."Later, the store was expanded both forward (eliminating the window displays) and back. Today, Tip Top continues to have a loyal following, many from the next generation of shoppers. Having walked so many streets in Manhattan, Tip Top has been a wonderful reminder to me that the old world concept of customer service, with a warm staff who have been working with the Wassermans for years, still exists. This thinking was solidified when I asked the family why they never considered expanding to another location. The response from Danny simply stated that they never wanted to spread themselves too thin. "The reason for our success is because we're all here."It was really touching to see how strong the glue is that holds the Wasserman family together. I was not surprised when I learned that Lester, Margot and their parents live in the same building, a block over on 72nd Street - but on different floors. Yes, Tip Top has been an incredible success story in the world of mom and pop stores, but not everyone has had the great fortune of such a beautiful family relationship. When I expressed this sentiment to Danny, he replied, "Everyone says how fortunate I am to have my kids, and they're right." He then went on to say with a warm smile, "I mean, my son chooses to work with me six days a week." Lester shook his head in agreement and responded, "And I am lucky to have the best possible teacher to educate me."
“We are beer nerds, not beer snobs.” That is how Bo Bogle, the general manager of Gebhard’s Beer Culture, and Peter Malfatti, its beverage director, would describe the wood-furnished, cozy bar and restaurant that they opened in the summer of 2016, featuring various local and foreign artisanal beers on tap. The people behind Gebhard’s Beer Culture - the sister restaurant to Beer Culture on 45th Street - are as enthusiastic about beer as they are about educating customers.Because many of the beers that they offer are unknown to the general public, Gebhard’s will always work to find the draught that best suits each customer’s palate. If one feels like tasting several selections, the beer flight - a tray of four small glasses - is a good choice. Along with the continuously changing list of beers, the kitchen offers an ample menu of munchies, many from Belgium, as this is where owner Matt Gebhard spent time as a foreign exchange student.I was enchanted to discover how playful the space is: Upstairs, there is a games room, complete with a dartboard, shuffleboard, Hacky Sacks, and BulziBucket. The decorations throughout the bar and restaurant are eclectic, with various beer signs and novelty items covering the walls. At the front, I discovered a nook full of records, as well as a well-loved bicycle helmet. Bo and Ryan, the bartenders on duty, matched the vibe of the restaurant with their jovial nature as they poured beers for the Manhattan Sideways team. They set out glasses of citrusy TarTan Ale, a Central Waters Brewing Co beer, and a fresh, hoppy Southern Tier 2x Tangier. The two men knew exactly what to select for a hot day in the city and enjoyed tag-teaming descriptions of each beer and brand.Bo explained to us that the motivation behind Gebhard's Beer Culture is essentially a “passion for the local beer market.” With the recent proliferation of local breweries around the city and in the rest of the country, Bo feels that “individuals are making great beers and that should be acknowledged.” However, he believes it is not enough to simply have them on tap, but rather, the bartenders should teach customers about the local beer scene. Beer Culture’s objective is as much educational as it is to host many good nights with friends. When asked about the one thing that he would like customers to know about their new bar, Bo grinned and said: “the second beer always tastes better than the first.”
With its prime 72nd Street location, I have passed by Malachy's Donegal Inn almost daily, but had never stepped inside. I was always waiting for the day when I would be working on this street, so that I could go in with the Manhattan Sideways team and have a good time. And that is exactly what happened. "Looks can be deceiving, believe me," owner Bill Raftery immediately said when we popped in during the lunch hour in the middle of the week. He continued to speak lovingly and confidently of his pub, which has been in business since 1989. "This bar has the best pub food of any like it in the area," Bill stated. Looking around, we were pleased to find the old wooden bar packed from end to end. According to Bill, most of his lunch customers are crew guys from local theaters like The Beacon and Lincoln Center, and "they are loyal." Engaging in conversation with more than a dozen men and women, we learned a lot about Bill, and the warm environment that he has built.As Bill continued to serve people from behind the bar, he spoke of how much the neighborhood has changed since he purchased Malachy's. On Saint Patrick's Day, the area used to be blanketed in green bar-goers. "You could not move in this neighborhood the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. There's nothing like seeing them blow up those balloons." Hikes in parking and travel costs have drastically reduced business on both of those days, he lamented. Still, he brightened up when pointing to the crowded bar, and said how his regulars are certainly devoted customers. Quite busy, he told us to stop by for a drink sometime soon, and headed into the kitchen.