Strolling along 5th Street, I was immediately drawn to a row of old-fashioned light bulbs hanging in the window of a small hair salon. Alexandra, the owner, invited me in while announcing that today, June 3, 2015, was Filament’s first day open! As I admired the salon’s hardwood floors and simple, appealing interior design, Alexandra told me that she and her co-owner, Seiji, had recently decided to leave the nearby hair salon where they both worked. A native Puerto Rican, Alexandra specializes in curly hair, while Seiji, originally from Japan, mostly works with straight hair and extensions. The pairing is perfect, Alexandra explained, because “there’s something for everyone here. ” And while she and Seiji have different styles, they both believe in a natural approach to hairdressing: instead of trying to change their clients’ hair, they embrace and enhance its natural beauty. The salon’s name reflects this philosophy. Alexandra and Seiji spent hours trying to decide what to call their new endeavor, but it did not click until they bought their signature light bulbs. When they saw the glowing filaments inside the shop, Filament Hair Salon was born - a place where "the light inside you shines through the strands of your hair. ”
The warmly painted walls inside Veselka envelop the room in folky florals and traditional Ukrainian symbols. Hanging from the ceiling are glowing milk glass globes that seem to replace the sun or moon depending on the time of day — and it could be any time at all, as Veselka is open for twenty-four hours, seven days a week, serving a smorgasbord of pierogis, bowls of borscht, and other expertly prepared comfort foods — Ukrainian and otherwise. Wlodymyr Darmochwal planted roots for Veselka when, as one of the founders of the neighborhood Plast organization (akin to the Ukrainian boy scouts, teaching survival skills and Ukrainian language), he was asked to create a weekend study program for the boys. In response, he opened a five-and-dime style counter at the corner of East 9th Street and Second Avenue where the boys could buy paper clips, cigarettes, lighters, and, notably, bowls of borscht and other basic Ukrainian foods. The business expanded into another storefront on East 9th Street a decade later. After Wlodymyr’s passing in 1972, it was taken over by his stepson, Tom Birchard, who was later joined by his son, Jason. Today, having worked at the restaurant since he was a teenager, Jason has “done every single job possible here except cook the borscht. ”When Jason joined the team, one of his first projects was to find out, “How late can we stay open? ” It turns out the answer was “all night. ” As Tom and Jason once again prepare to expand the restaurant into an adjoining storefront on 9th Street, they are eager to continue serving the next generation the kind of traditional Ukrainian food that Wlodymyr would have had at his counter more than sixty years ago.
Shahrzad Ghajar, founder of the gift shop Spooksvilla + friends, takes curation to another level. She meets with each of the artists represented in the store and personally chooses every piece showcased on the walls and shelves. Shahrzad, herself, is a talented artist, and many of her designs are featured in the shop. By focusing on the artists, Spooksvilla ensures that everything for sale - from apparel to wall art - is one-of-a-kind. “We like to be representative of original people doing original things— be it art, products, charms or any other kind of cool item, " said Ethan Velez, manager of Spooksvilla. Despite the fact that multiple artists contribute to Spooksvilla, the store is not a hodgepodge of styles. Rather, the art is united in its bold, whimsical designs. A favorite is the label on the bottle of the rose bath salts - a piece of art in itself. A woman with purple skin and purple hair rides a pink dragon, holding, of course, roses.
Serving an interesting but decadent assortment of coffees, hot cakes, desserts, Japanese tapas, sandwiches, pasta, and more, Hi-Collar functions as many things. In the morning the atmosphere is subdued and relaxed like a coffee shop, as customers come to enjoy “kissaten” – a term to describe Japanese-style coffee shops. The lady we spoke to at Hi-Collar told us their coffee selection is extensive and that there are a variety of beans to choose from. Not only is there the opportunity to select the bean varietal, but one can also choose how the coffee is made as well: pour over, aeropress, or siphon—each method drawing out a distinct flavor. For the non-coffee drinker, there are teas and even a fruit milkshake. As the afternoon wears on and evening approaches, Hi-Collar becomes a bar complete with wine, sake, and beer. Inquiring about the name, we found that Hi-Collar is in fact a term that came to be during the Japanese Jazz Age, when Western culture infiltrated Japan and many men were seen wearing Western style high collars. The only seating available is at the long bar, and the beautiful flowers and lamps that hang from the ceiling add to the allure of this multifaceted nook on 10th.
The essence of Duo is in its name; it is two things at once. It is dulled colors and clean lines, minimalist in feel but simultaneously filled with warmth and softness. Both young and old, vibrant and calm, it is modern and fresh but brings to mind memories of simpler times: of handwritten letters, cozy Sunday afternoons and soft breezes over the wide open fields of northern Minnesota, the owners’ home state. Conflicting and complementing all at once, Duo is the product of two minds at work. Sisters Wendy and LaRae Kangas have created a perfect little fashion oasis that fits right in with the small town vibes of Manhattan’s East Village. Growing up, Wendy and LaRae pestered each other and fought over clothes, as siblings will do, but in 2008 they decided to open up a shop together. Today, they work with dealers and emerging independent designers throughout the country and pick all their clothing, accessories and home goods by hand, combining masculine and feminine styles with modern silhouettes and vintage traces to curate a timeless collection of quality, classic pieces. “It’s a very personal process, ” they told me, “and we put a lot of love into our shop and our collections. ” Nothing at Duo is mass-produced, and most of their merchandise is recycled. The sisters pour their hearts into the shop and work hard to stay true to themselves while keeping an eye toward the future, expanding their business into the world of e-commerce and social media. “It’s important to stay current and give the customers what they want, ” they said. They love what they do, and working with family makes it even more fun, according to the sisters. “It makes work smooth when you don’t have to verbalize what you’re thinking, ” they told me, “We just know what each other is thinking and it makes choosing products and daily operations much easier. ”Duo is a celebration of creative spirit. It is clear that the sisters revel in the one-of-a-kind individuality of each and every one of their customers who come to them looking for pieces that will express their own unique style. When explaining what they love about their work, they said, “It’s great to make a customer feel better when they walk out the door. ”
When I asked Alex Harsley if he knew who owned the 1968 Dodge Dart parked outside his gallery, his response was “that is mine…I purchased it in 1974, and have enjoyed it ever since…my car is all about the good times. ” Complete with a penguin in the driver’s seat and an owl in the navigator seat, it certainly reflects the creative and historic atmosphere of the 4th Street Photo Gallery right behind it. Alex opened his gallery in 1973 and describes it as a “museum of the past. ” Although certainly showcasing past techniques, scenes and individuals through its extensive collection, Alex has always been one step ahead of the curve throughout his long career in photography and videography. Alex developed his photography skills by playing around with the different techniques he had created as well as by learning from his mistakes. His career as a professional photographer began in 1959 when he got a job with a New York Attorney’s Office. After being drafted into the army, Alex was able to become a supervisor in the photography department at Color Lab due to his knowledge of photo chemicals and his ability to be “very good at getting weird kind of situations that no one knew anything about. ” In the 1970s, Alex began to focus deeply on experimenting with the photo chemical process. He became interested both in increasing his understanding and in spreading his knowledge to other photographers. He was able to open an art organization with the help of other artists that he was working with at the time, which he used as a platform for research, collaboration and teaching. His organization, 4th Street Photo, is as much a community as it is a gallery. Since 1971, Alex has offered his space as a showcase for photographers of all backgrounds, as well as a meeting place where ideas are exchanged, portfolios are reviewed and new friends are made. It has been instrumental in giving distinguished photographers their first significant New York City solo exhibits. Throughout his career, Alex has done an immense amount of work freelancing in both photography and video, collaborating with other artists on projects, and even producing video that would be displayed in the Whitney. He has also had the incredible good fortune of having spent time photographing both John Coltrane at the Apollo Theater and Muhammad Ali when he was a young fighter. However, in the early 2000s, Alex realized that he was doing very little of his own work and decided to return to his own collection to begin the process of printing. He eventually produced around “2, 000 or 3, 000” of his own prints, many of which are displayed or stored in his gallery.
So many of us tend to take photos on our phones these days, and then we are never quite certain what to do with them – whether to print them out, and where to place them in our home or office if we do - while others have acquired meaningful pieces of art over the years, but have no concept of how to hang them. This is where David Kassel and Michelle Conrad, the husband and wife team behind ILevel, come in. I had spoken on the phone with Michelle prior to our meeting, and I had, of course, read about ILevel on line. I was not at all prepared, however, for what I discovered upon entering their gallery on East 7th Street. The fantastic space is vast - absolutely ideal for displaying artwork in any form. David and Michelle greeted Lucas, the photographer, and me and invited us to sit on their couch as we began to chat, and play with their adorable new puppy. It was a perfect, relaxing atmosphere for anyone who is interested in receiving some great advice about decorating their walls. David began by sharing a bit of his background with me. I had to stop him immediately when he related that he had attended SUNY Purchase, for my family and I lived on the same street as the university for fifteen years. I, of course, knew the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase where David worked while a student. Following this, he secured a job at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In the 1980s, when David became aware of the "crazy purchasing" of art that was going on with corporations, he decided that it was time to go out on his own and begin an art installation business. He has not looked back since. What came as another surprise to me was when David mentioned that he has lived in this brownstone for over forty years, only recently (2016) deciding to open a brick and mortar space, downstairs, for his thirty-year-old company. Today, the walls are covered with photos from Michelle and David's own family, as well as work from private dealers who do not have space to display paintings. When we were there, it was an eclectic mix with contemporary pieces, botanical works, and eighteenth century Hindu art. In addition, several walls were devoted to the fifteen members of their staff - all of them artists. Michelle added that they are constantly changing things up - creating unique configurations, as they want to be able to inspire those that come through their doors. "There are endless creative possibilities as to how one might choose to hang their artwork; we like to allow our clients to see what they, potentially, can do with their own collections. "Michelle is from Chicago and has had an interesting, successful career in marketing. Today, however, she chooses to work along side her husband, sharing ideas in any and every aspect of the business, as well as raising their two children. They appear to be one terrific duo. David shared several amusing stories with us from his encounters with clients. Who gets to share lox and bagels with someone in the Dakota building, or a cup of coffee with some of the most fascinating people in New York, hearing their stories, and looking through their photos? When I inquired as to whether or not the business continues to make them happy, David had no hesitation in responding, "We love what we do, even after all of these years... However, it is the relationships we form that are the most meaningful to us. " Elaborating, Michelle shared that people are always pleased to see them. "Often, we are the last step in what was otherwise a challenging renovation or move. " At the point that their team comes in, all the dust is, literally, settled, and the boxes are unpacked. ILevel is simply putting on the finishing touches by placing beautiful art on the bare walls.