Tuesday, August 30, 2016



On second thought. Look now.  Quickly.  Before it's gone...

While Jean is away, Valerie gets wistful for the good old days (that's what old people do, right?)

Jean and I like to think of ourselves as pretty forward-thinking, but both of our neighborhoods are changing, and not in a good way.  Just for today, I'm going to indulge in a little kvetchfest about mine.

When I moved to midtown Manhattan nearly twenty years ago, the streets in my neighborhood held countless treasures - some hidden, some in plain sight - but on any given day of the week there would be something to see.  Walking through midtown was inspiring.

One of the most amazing losses midtown suffered was that of the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street.  This architectural gem, right next to the Museum of Modern Art, was designed to house AFAM's holdings, but in subsequent years the museum suffered from a disastrous series of problems it could not extricate itself from.  AFAM closed, the property was subsequently bought by MOMA, and torn down within a decade of its completion because the structure could not be annexed.

AFAM's gift shop, visible from the street, was itself a little jewel.  One day the gift shop had ten different spray-painted foam rubber hand puppet devils in its vitrine.  Newly arrived, they made quite a splash, and came with a handout explaining that they were made by a puppeteer in Vera Cruz, Mexico.  This was the kind of random pleasure New Yorkers once enjoyed as a matter of course.

One of my all-time favorites, and one of the first to disappear, was a shop called Folklorica which, on any given day, would have anything from pre-columbian ocarinas to beaded pubic aprons from Cameroon.  Staffed by owners Jack and Pam and their star employee Rosa, who became my good friend, I could always count on them to have fascinating stories to tell about the merchandise.  Rosa gave me the two African hats shown above.  Also on 53rd Street, Folklorica's space is today the home of LIM College.  Colleges are a good thing to have anywhere, but Jack and Pam's window on the non-industrial world is deeply missed.

Another favorite eye-popping store was Takashimaya, which opened  with a bang on Fifth Avenue and 54th Street in 1993.  Their first year or so they held blockbuster exhibitions of Japanese art.  On a few occasions, they displayed huge, airy kimono-like gowns made and hand painted by Margot Rozanska which hung, kite-like, from the high ceilings.  (Above, a huge Rozanska scarf.  I heard that one of the floating kimonos was bought by a Saudi princess.  No way to verify that...)  The top floor housed a florist who carried unimaginable blossoms, and made Takashimaya the best place to see a gorgeous array of nature's plants if you couldn't travel to a botanical garden.  In the basement, next to a restaurant that served amazing box lunches, there was a loose tea shop that offered dozens of varieties of fresh Asian teas, delicate Japanese cookies and, best of all, tiny chocolate truffles shaped like mice, with colorful little rayon tails.  (Probably made by Burdick, from whom the photo below is borrowed.)

After a few short golden years, perhaps in tandem with the bursting of the Japanese bubble, Takashimaya gave up on its ambitious arts program and installed cosmetics on the main floor.  Their recherche tastes unappreciated, they closed with a whimper in 2010.  The space changed hands several times, and now houses Valentino.  Many people who remember Takashimaya still speak of it with awe and reverence, as if reminiscing about a lost cathedral.

The first place I saw these Keith Haring chairs was at Felissimo, another Japanese store, which opened in a Gilt Age townhouse at 10 West 56th Street (once owned by Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd).  Walking up and down their winding marble staircases alone was a thrill.  Felissimo was always filled with marvels for the eye that brought smiles to the lips.  On the top floor there was a tiny tea shop with an amazing chocolate souffle on its dessert menu.   Felissimo closed with no notice years ago, and the building doesn't seem to have been used at all since then, but while it was in operation, it was like a lustrous ring in a tiny lavish jewel box.

We still mourn the loss of Julie Artisans Gallery on Madison Avenue near 65th Street, which sold one of a kind jewelry and clothes by extraordinary craftspeople.  Julie herself was one of a kind for bringing so much great work under one roof.  The colorful felt necklace shown here was made by one of Julie's artists, Danielle Gori-Montanelli.  In the years since Julie closed her shop, no one has come close to attempting anything similar in Manhattan.  The space now hosts a shoe store with shops all over the world.

At Lexington and 64th Street was Pylones, a shop aimed at children of all ages.  To give you some idea of the range of their merchandise, above, a bicycle lock designed to look like a snake.  Below, an inflatable boy friend.  (I still haven't opened it.  Him.  Whatever.)

After a good decade in that location, Pylones closed, and a nail salon opened in its place.

Last year we lost two Donna Karan stores.  First to go was her flagship store on Madison Avenue and 68th Street.  It was a wide open space with dramatic Hollywood-worthy stairs, and filled with surprises.  In addition to her marvelous fashions, one was equally likely to see delicate handmade porcelain dishes by Christiane Perrochon or one-of-a-kind pieces by 1970s metalsmithing sensation Robert Lee Morris as hand carved Dogon ladders.  But the take-your-breath-away moment was always going into the small courtyard in the back which, far from being stuffed with merchandise on some very expensive real estate, was given over to a small koi pond, a stand of bamboo and a sense of peace and quiet.  The above photo does it no justice at all.

At almost the same time, the DKNY shop on Madison Avenue and 59th Street closed.  This was another shop that was full of surprises, including a health bar on the second floor.  The two humongous white felt rings above were purchased there.  Few will talk on record so one never gets the full story, but usually when stores close there are rumors about leases ending, and the new rent tripling or even quintupling.  Stores that don't sell enough merchandise to cover the new rent close, and their place is taken by businesses with a much higher turnover.  (Guess what kinds of businesses have much higher turnover.)  It is common now to see spaces that remain vacant for over a year.  While they're closed, they earn a tax write off.  When they reopen, they make all the money back by tripling the previous rent.  It seems somewhat akin to the 21st century version of tulipmania.  (If you're not familiar with Holland's 17th century tulip mania, read here.)
photo by Rolly Robinson

FAO Schwarz, the world renowned toy store on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, closed more than a year ago, and no shop has opened in its place.  The red polka dots balls in the photo above were part of the joy and mischief that was FAO Schwarz.

In this neighborhood, there used to be three second hand boutiques.  Now there are none.  One has become an art gallery, another has become a hair salon, and the third is so recent that what happened - and will happen - is still a mystery.  For those of us who eschew norm core, losing a second hand store is similar to watching technicolor movies on a black and white television.

photograph by Denton Taylor

Crate & Barrel, where I got this black and white picnic bag by the wonderfully creative Paula Navone, has left Madison Avenue and 59th Street, lock, stock, and eponymous barrel.  They were great for printed napkins, Marimekko sheets, home furnishings, and colorful kitchenware, including their collapsible silicon funnel

(which made a great hat on one occasion, and would probably make a helluva breast plate).

Last on this list is the Barnes & Noble at the Citicorp Building at 54th Street and Third Avenue, whose lease was not renewed when the building decided to make major structural improvements.   I have little time for pleasure reading anymore, but I did count on Barnes & Noble for all my calendar needs.  B&N has supplied me with many a pocket calendar.  Below is my now tatty 2013-2014 Van Gogh pocket planner, which treated me to a different Van Gogh picture every month.

For my desk at work, I've had the Audubon bird-a-day calendar (my name, not theirs) for the past three years.  I don't learn much about the birds except their Latin names, but I'm endlessly intrigued and stimulated by the birds' color combinations, shapes, and behaviors.  Both of these calendars are going to be a lot more annoying to find if brick and mortar bookstores disappear.  I'll also have to pay shipping charges, as if I lived 30 miles from the nearest town.

Some of you, on reading this, will say that I am kvetching about shopping.  I'm not.  I'm kvetching about the disappearance of the ideas and work of creative, interesting people, which used to pepper the city, and was celebrated as one of the primary benefits of paying exorbitant taxes.   I'm kvetching about the disappearance of flavor, surprise, variety, and sheer joy from the fabric of daily life.


  1. You have my sympathies. The same thing is happening in the Cherry Creek area of Denver. Slick, modern commerce shoves aside quirky, energizing creative businesses.

  2. It makes me so sad to see how greedy landlords are killing certain shops/museums in NYC. That is a very bad sign and one that will have lasting consequences.

  3. Same thing happening in Vancouver, BC, because of high property taxes, greedy landlords...

  4. Beautifully written, and I completely concur with your sentiments. Have you thought of submitting this as an opinion piece to the NYT?

  5. one of the benefits of sprawl (maybe the only one!) is that there's still room for shops like this to find a place. I have lived in the rapidly gentrifying Arts District since'98. We've lost may cool things but York Ave,Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and other neighborhoods are still bordering on affordable. Maybe we'll sprawl all the way to San Bernadino!

  6. I'm with you! It saddens me to see this happening almost everywhere. I agree with the commenters above. And yes, a submission to the NYT sounds like a wonderful idea.

  7. I'm sorry I didn't get an opportunity to visit the places you mention in this post! When I first moved to London,Ontario, where I've lived for the last 30 or so years, it had a thriving downtown with lots of cool independently owned businesses, and now it's full of pawn shops, tattoo studios and empty storefronts...sigh.

  8. This is happening in Boston, too. Harvard Square is a shadow of its former self. I am tired of the same stores in all the cities I visit. There are individual stores out there but we have to search hard for them and make sure to support them. Even my son who is in his 30s complains about the corporatizing (is that a word?) of shopping.