After making frequent trips to Mexico and being unable to stay there as she wished, Dina Leor decided to do the next best thing: She brought Mexico to New York. Her success is evident upon walking into the store: Everything is covered in paper flowers and bright colors, enough to lift the spirits of any New Yorker wandering in on a gray day. A Lilliputian party of skeletal characters dance on a shelf for Día de los Muertos and little metal charms called “Milagros” or “miracles” cover many of the pieces. Dina carries everything from simple keychains and children’s toys to elaborate folk art, but each piece has a special meaning, often explained by little handwritten cards on the shelves. Dina is an artist herself: she used to make colorful boxes. When she opened La Sirena in 1999, she was essentially creating a bigger box: A box housing art and culture. She calls it her “evolving assemblage,” a “living altar.”
La Sirena attracts all sorts of people. While I was visiting, there was a Swiss family browsing, straight from the airport. Since Dina’s was the first store they had found, they gave her a little box of Swiss chocolates. Many of Dina’s customers, however, are regulars, and Mexicans themselves. While spending time with Dina, she told me how a Mexican man had walked in and started weeping, because the store reminded him of his grandmother and he had not been able to go home to visit her. The store is “an umbrella of the republic,” Dina says, and many regions of Mexico are represented.
Dina went on to tell me another story, while explaining that she carries items from $2 to $500. One day she had a Mexican mother come in and gush over the merchandise. The woman wanted to get something for her four children, but only had a twenty-dollar bill. Dina helped her find four hand-made items and felt very proud when the cash register read “$19.60.” Some of the pricier pieces in the store come from the expatriate New Yorker Sue Kreitzman, a cookbook writer-turned-artist, whose work is celebrated in England, where she now resides. She uses echoes of Mexican folk art in her work. La Sirena provides her with many materials and is proud to feature her art.
The history and familial meaning behind all the art is fascinating: Dina explained to me that in Mexico, life and art are not clearly separated. Artistic items are often family efforts, and children will frequently come home from school in the afternoon and help paint or sculpt or craft. The art is “handmade by beautiful people:” when she travels around Mexico, people welcome her into their home and give her tortillas to represent reciprocal warmth. One of the most beautiful sights that she has seen on her travels was a woman breast-feeding while making clay pieces at the home of Josefina Aguilar, now well-known in the folk art community. “It’s part of the circle of life,” Dina says: making art among nature, raising children, and teaching them the same artistic passions. Dina herself is part of this circle of life: As the adopted daughter of Mexico, she is continuing its artistic traditions and teaching them, in turn, to New Yorkers.
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.
A dainty shop located on Extra Place - that little side street off of 1st Street where the Ramones photographed an Album Cover - Nalata Nalata features high quality décor sourced mainly from Japan. In the same way that Manhattan Sideways shares the stories of businesses on the sidestreets of Manhattan, Nalata Nalata, as their website explains, “is a retail experience founded on promoting awareness of the people and stories behind our curated lifestyle products. ”On my first visit to Nalata Nalata, I spoke with Angelique J. V. Chmielewski, who co-founded the business with her husband, Stevenson S. J. Aung. Originally from Alberta, Canada, Angelique came to New York to study fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology while Stevenson, her boyfriend at the time, fulfilled his masters in industrial design at the Pratt Institute. Nalata Nalata began as a website beautifully crafted to feature sections like Backstory, with write-ups on the brands behind the pieces, and Journal, detailing the journey and artistic endeavors through captioned photographs. In late 2013, Nalata Nalata opened in Extra Place as a pop-up store and, after falling in love with the spot, the owners decided to make it a permanent stay. Though functional in a traditional way, each product in the store contains intrinsic artistic and narrative values, many sourced from “multigenerational craftsmen who continue to refine their skill. ” Angelique first directed me to the porcelain Ju-Bakos, Japanese stacking boxes, which are traditionally used for food on special occasions. Representative of multilayered happiness, each box was crafted with a different glaze. Later, Angelique held up a glass terrarium box designed by 1012 Terra, a company based in Chiba, Japan that is focused on celebrating plant life. In the box was a dried flower reminiscent of the rose in Beauty and the Beast. “In order to preserve a flower, ” she explained, “pin it in the box and flip it upside-down. When it has completely dried out, it will be straight when turned upright. ”Though devoted to sharing the works of others, Nalata Nalata is cemented by the artistry of Angelique and Stevenson. From the custom-made cabinets to the slab roof ceiling, the two redesigned the entire interior of the store in the months before its opening, with the help of some additional hands. The carefully selected products perfectly complement the spare, bright space. The store's website also reveals a great deal of artistry, with each piece beautifully photographed, set to a white background, and matched with a whimsical remark and a few lines about its origins, making online shopping more homey and intimate. The wool blankets exclaim, “Cool nights, brisk mornings, frigid afternoons. Whatever weather the day may bring I’m a tried-and-true, dyed-in-the-wool cozy friend… Always by one’s side to provide warmth and comfort. ”Nalata Nalata is also working on their own line of products. One recent addition, the denim Ojami, bridges Japanese traditions and contemporary American design. Handmade in Kyoto, the Ojami are versatile pillows. Angelique and Stevenson enjoy using them as seats to “live low, ” but they also function as throw pillows. In the future, the couple hopes to get into more denim and hardware products, while continuing to curate objects they appreciate artistically and sentimentally. For now, Angelique says, “We are just happy to be here. ”
We love browsing around this eclectic gift shop whenever we are on 9th. It is clear that Urte Tylaite, the very sweet owner has a keen eye for a clean, minimalist aesthetic and a slant toward natural and organic shapes. Here one can find unique home goods, such as delicate glass-blown vases and ceramics crafted by local and international artists. We are particularly fond, however, of Urte's tasteful selection of jewelry. There is also a small collection of paper goods that includes books, notebooks, prints, and postcards. On one visit to Still House, we were delighted to meet Urte's mom who confirmed for us the careful consideration that her daughter puts into choosing the artists and craftspeople whose work is on display. It is apparent to us that it is "passion, not investment" that makes this store as special as it is.
Tucked in the heart of the East Village, Random Accessories is a small and colorful treasure chest of hundreds of gift items that “you can send to anyone, anytime”, according to Lynn, the owner. From greeting cards to jewelry and hip T-shirts, Lynn has been committed to offering customers a diverse range of gifts since 1996. With extensive experience in jewelry buying and retail (as a manager for Brookstone), Lynn knows the formula for a good gift business: “Make it interesting and make it reasonably priced”. While Lynn, a local New Yorker, admits that she did not have a “clear, set idea” for the business when she started Random Accessories, she mentioned that over time the pieces started falling together into the cheerful and rich concept it is today. Her objective is to help people find the perfect gift, no matter the circumstances, whether they are on their way to a party or buying for a special occasion like Valentine’s Day. The key to such a goal for Lynn is variety of product. “We always have different items” Lynn said. One of the store's more plentiful areas is the baby gift section. Lynn explained that a “baby boom” of sorts over the last twelve years has made infant and toddler gifts extremely popular items. But Lynn stresses that the mix of goods is always changing, and when asked about potential new items in the future, her reply was energizing and straightforward: “We’re not limited by anything except what fits in the store”.
A symbol of the neighborhood’s vibrant Ukrainian legacy, Arka has occupied varying East Village corners since 1951. Stepping into the E 2nd Street store is akin to taking a direct flight to Kyiv - Ukrainian folk music plays softly in the background amidst stockpiles of hand-embroidered clothes, delicately painted household goods and jewelry from the Eastern European nation. According to the owners, Arka’s clientele includes locals who are Czech, Albanian, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian. “The embroidery is my favorite, ” said co-owner Maria Drobenko, as we padded through the shop’s treasure trove of handmade goods. If you’re looking to support Ukraine and pick up a unique gift (we recommend the “name” mugs for an Eastern European spin on the classic NYC tourist tchotchke) look no further than Arka — where Ukrainian craftsmanship lives on in Alphabet City.
Reed Adelson, owner of the American restaurant Virginia’s, was trained by the best in the industry. He learned about wine at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, interned at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, then returned to his Manhattan roots to work under Jean-Georges to open the Mark Hotel, and finally worked at Locanda Verde. Riding in a car with industry legends Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, he was presented with the answer to his doubts about working in the restaurant business, "If this is what you’re passionate about, there is nothing else you can do. It’s more of a vocation than a job choice. "Reed brought all of this expertise to open his first restaurant in 2015. Named for his mom, Virginia’s has become known for its burger, with bone marrow aioli, cabot cheddar, and house-made pickles, but there are more sophisticated dishes that deserve equal praise including the wild king salmon with red cabbage slaw and golden beet puree. Reed focuses on consistency for his menu, with a few seasonal dishes, such as the corn ravioli with fontina cheese and crispy shallots. With his eye on the future, Reed is contemplating moving a little closer to the city’s center, while admitting, "there’s something romantic about the side streets. "
Kenkeleba Garden, named for an African healing plant, is simply magical. We followed the densely forested greenery around to the back, arriving at a clearing that transported us to another world far from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. We were completely surprised when we landed in front of the sculpture garden, which is only visible from 3rd Street. From large African sculptures to collections of scraps or bricolage, a specialty of the Lower East Side art scene, we could not help but linger before doubling back and re-emerging onto the concrete sidewalks of 2nd Street. It was not until many months later, when we had the pleasure of meeting Joe Overstreet and his wife, Corinne Jennings, that we learned that this is affiliated with their gallery next door, Kenkeleba House. It is their life-long dream to someday use these grounds to build a museum that would house their massive collection of African-American art. It has an entrance on both 2nd Street and 3rd,
Book Club isn’t just for the suburbs anymore — as a new bookshop, bar and coffeehouse gives East Village denizens and beyond a new place to pore over and pour over their favorite reads. Married proprietors Erin Neary and Nat Esten, East Village residents themselves, had longed for an independent bookstore to serve the Alphabet City area, they told the Manhattan Sideways team when we popped in to see dozens of happy customers enjoying a read and a latte one sunny Friday morning. “We always thought that the neighborhood needed another bookstore, ” said Erin, “and we also kept wondering, ‘Wouldn't it be so cool if you could drink wine while you were shopping for books? ’” They decided not only to open a bookstore and bar, but to additionally add in the day-to-night-element of coffee into the mix. While both Erin and Nat had worked in hospitality before, bookselling was new to them. “I started doing research in 2017 and worked with the American Booksellers Association’s consulting program to help new bookstores get off the ground, ” said Erin. “I met with them as well as other bar owners and bookstore owners in the neighborhood and did as much research as I could without actually doing it. ” The duo launched Book Club in November 2019, enjoying an enthusiastic community reception until COVID-19 forced them to pivot. “Nate started doing bike deliveries — as many as 20 miles a day! ” Erin told us. “He’d go out to Harlem to drop off books and then all the way out to Bushwick — so a lot of people learned about the store that way. ”Once they were able to reopen to the public, Book Club forged full steam ahead in engaging the community in “book club”-esque events — from author talks to poetry readings to creative writing workshops, with additional unique offerings like an adult spelling bee and a “drink and draw” sketching class. They’ve also recently received their full liquor license, and plan to roll out literary-themed cocktails like an In Cold Bloody Mary or the Murder on the Orient Espresso Martini, Erin told us. More than anything, she added, she enjoyed having customers back in the store to guide them toward their next favorite book. “Our staff are not just really good baristas, but they’re avid readers as well. So between myself and the rest of the team, we have a really good handle on the books here — it’s fun to be able to curate not just what we stock, but to get the right book into someone’s hands. ”
There is no over-the-top, Tex-Mex red and green here. Instead, string lighting and wire deck chairs give the entire restaurant a patio feel, and the nods to Mexico are subtle and tasteful: tables set with blue-rimmed glasses like the ones I have seen on trips to the country, and a bar at the back with row upon row of tequila and mezcal. Rosie’s is the latest from restaurateurs Marc Meyer and Vicki Freeman, known for their other ventures like Cookshop and Vic’s. When I stopped by in July of 2015, Rosie’s had been open just over three months, though Anna Marie, the General Manager, said “strangely, we feel like we’ve been here longer. It’s a comfortable feeling. ” I asked her to tell me about her experience with the new restaurant so far, and she told me how lucky she felt to be in the area. “I love the neighborhood, ” she explained, “one of our goals coming here was to become part of the community. ”“We’ve really tried to bring Mexico to New York, ” Anna Marie continued. Owner Marc Meyer had been travelling to Mexico for years, and so opening Rosie’s was a dream come true for the chef. “He just has such a respect for the cuisine, ” Anna Marie added. Of course, in order to bring authentic Mexican to Manhattan, a great deal of research was required. “We all went to Veracruz last August to do more research on the seafood side, ” Anna Marie recalled. The research certainly paid off. Members of the Sideways Team were blown away by the Cangrejo al Ajillo, a pan roasted blue crab served with guajillo chile, garlic, lime, and olive oil. Besides such astonishingly fresh seafood, another tradition that Rosie’s brings straight from Mexico is the Comal – the centerpiece of the dining area is a circular, tiled bar where women prepare tortillas by hand. “Our Comal Bar is a tribute to the ladies on the streets in Mexico, ” Anna Marie told me. There, the women grind their own corn to make the masa needed for corn tortillas. At Rosie’s, the corn is imported directly from Mexico, and ground downstairs, so that the first thing customers smell when they enter the restaurant is the fresh cornmeal. The women who make the masa into tortillas wear traditional comal aprons sewn from fabric that Marc Meyer and his team brought back from one of their trips. It is just one more touch of authenticity to accompany the restaurant’s delicious food. While the menu at Rosie’s does not focus on a particular region of Mexico, it acts as a travelogue of sorts, a collection of recipes inspired by Marc’s journeys there, and the culinary experiences that the country holds. The enchiladas are served in traditional style, with an aromatic mole sauce, and of course, everything comes with freshly-made tortillas. “The chefs – you get an air of such pride from them, ” Anna Marie exclaimed. “They feel celebrated, and that makes me happy. ”