116th Street is filled with chains, be it Dunkin' Donuts, CVS or 7-Eleven, but quietly tucked away in a tiny space, amidst all of the other shops, I stumbled upon a colorful gallery filled with unique pieces of jewelry, art and glass. Although everything inside the space is beautiful, it was the owners of Millennium, Bertram and Judith Romeo, that drew me in and kept me there for quite some time.
Bertram came to New York at the age of twelve from Jamaica while Judith arrived with her family a year later from Trinidad. They both landed in Brooklyn and met through their brothers, who had become friends. "We grew up together, and then it became more," Bertram beamed. He had gone to school to learn computer engineering, but one day, they decided that it would be fun to open a boutique and sell the pieces of jewelry that Judith had been creating. That was seventeen years ago, in 1999, and they are still enjoying every minute of being in business together.
Bertram was quite proud to point out the stunning earrings and broaches that his wife had made. The "Mother Earth" collection was embellished with numerous stones - one more attractive than the next. It was Judith who chimed in at this point and said to me, "We take pride and are passionate in what we do." She then continued on telling me that "We always go the extra mile for our customers and they've been coming back for years."
There is no doubt that Bertram and Judith are a fixture in the neighborhood. The door was swung open on the day that I visited in the fall of 2016, and not a person went by without calling in to say "hello." When I commented on this to Bertram, he responded, "Yes, we are always watching out for each other."
The two said that they have been adding "different elements" as the years go on, changing up the inventory, but keeping true to selling jewelry, artwork and glass. In addition to Judith's artwork, the couple has a stunning selection of hand blown Venetian glass from their years of traveling to Italy. "We have loved traveling, my wife still enjoys creating, and we both adore meeting new people and spending time with those that we already know."
Since they do not travel as much as they used to, they now recruit their friends to bring interesting pieces back from their trips to inspire them. They have loyal customers, but in order to keep them around, they need to "have something different to offer them."
As our conversation went on, I learned that Bertram and Judith are inspired by current events. An example that they shared was when the Metropolitan Museum of New York had an exhibit on American designers influenced by Asian elements, they "played around" with Asian designs. And lately, that "something different" is pressing the essence of leaves and botanicals into silks and other materials using heat and pressure. It makes an extraordinary leaf pattern for scarves and fabrics. I marveled at the oak tree pieces with leaves from Massachusetts. Judith shared that when a couple brought back leaves from Australia, she created an Australian-themed selection.
The shop represents several local artists and others throughout the States, as well as having a nice collection of art from Africa. When I inquired about their clientele, Bertram spoke warmly of the local community, but also mentioned the busses that travel to 116th Street each day taking tourists to the outdoor Malcolm Shabass Harlem Market next door, "and then they inevitably stop into our shop."
When I asked Bertram if after all of these years it was still fun, he immediately replied, "I still love every aspect of the business," and then smiled and said, "We grew up together and we are always together, and we like it this way."
My first encounter with Amy Ruth's, a Southern style restaurant in the finest tradition, was during my walk while documenting every place on 116th. The street is enormous, with many delis, convenience stores, hair salons and barber shops, but tucked between these are some marvelous hidden gems. Amy Ruth's is certainly one of them, although, "hidden" is debatable given that the restaurant usually has a line out the door. Once inside, I discovered that the space is endless. There are some smaller nooks, an upstairs area that is open on the weekends, and then a large catering hall for private events. The second time I visited Amy Ruth's, late on a Saturday morning, I brought my husband and friends, as I needed them to enjoy the same experience that I had had. I loved every aspect of this restaurant. From the star-shaped paper lanterns hanging on the ceiling to the murals portraying well known African American figures - including President Obama, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Serena and Venus Williams - to the variety of ages and cultures sitting at the tables, and, of course, to the excellent Southern cuisine, the restaurant offers a memorable dining spot for everyone. The opening of Amy Ruth's in 1998 was inspired by Carl Redding's time spent down south visiting his grandmother during the summer months. He chose to stand by her side day in and day out as she prepared meal after meal for her adoring family. Years later, he decided to pay tribute to this wonderful woman by opening up his own restaurant and naming it after his beloved grandmother. This warm family feeling is transmitted to guests as soon as they arrive. Waiting to enter, we began speaking with some of the patrons who were raving about the food. I learned that they queue up almost every weekend for the chicken and waffles - and every other waffle combination imaginable. Needless to say, our meal also consisted primarily of waffles, most of us opting for the variety of fruit toppings, and it was perfect.
Crepe Master opened in November 2017. After a trip to Japan, owner Fumi wanted to bring the uniqueness of the country's crepes to Harlem. Unlike French crepes, Japanese crepes are traditionally served in a cone. They are a classic street food dish in populous cities throughout the country. Top recommendations include Chocobana, a sweet crepe comprised of banana, crushed chocolates, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, custard cream, and almonds, the Suzette, a simple butter, sugar, lemon crepe, or any savory crepe with tofu.
Bright colors abound inside the semi-covered market on West 116th Street - and it has been this way since 1994 when vendors gathered under one roof to sell their African wares. From traditional fabrics, and handmade clothing, to jewelry, accessories, and wood carvings, to native instruments, the collection at Malcolm Shabazz represents numerous countries including Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Mali and Kenya. I found the experience to be exhilarating as I strolled through the stalls carrying on conversations with the vendors. There is a true camaraderie amongst them that is palpable.