Blue Christmas

Lean Times in the East Village

'We came in a few hundred short of what we did last year—we were essentially flat. Which was great!' Says Chris Brosius, co-owner of Demeter, a perfumerie on Second Avenue in the east village that sells scents with names like funeral home and sticky toffee pudding. Financially speaking, 'flat' is not usually something to crow about, but these are tough times in the East Village, where quirky shops are battling twin dragons: the city's dreary economic situation and the psychological aftermath of September 11. "When it first happened, I thought Jesus God Almighty, but really things have been OK for us," Brosius says. "Of course, from the wholesale perspective, the story is less happy—any new business we had planned went up in smoke." Brosius is convinced that a whiff of Dirt or Green Tomatoes (prices start at $15) is just what a shattered city needs. "The traditional fragrance business is in a bad way. At least the things we do make people feel happy. With us, you walk away with a smile. You never walk away from Calvin Klein with a smile."

The guy behind the counter at Shazzam on East 5th Street wears a modified pudding-basin haircut and a weary expression. At the shop, a quintessential bohemian hole-in-the-wall that's been around for decades, "business has been off 50 percent since September 11. Nobody from out of the neighborhood is here," he says. Financially, "it's very close; it's day to day." Shazzam specializes in spectacularly cheap clothes—samples, odd and ends, and end-of-season merchandise the owner garners from a variety of venues, many of which are drying up. "The problem is the whole industry has slowed down too—the sources are losing their jobs. The whole egg has got to be rebuilt." Shazzam used to sell everything for $5, except for the stuff in the window, which went for $1 an item. Now the clothes are two for $5, and merchandise piled on the floor are $1. "We made it two for $5 on October 1, to make up for the 50 percent of business we lost." Tourists and uptowners may have stopped coming to the neighborhood, but the locals are loyal. On a recent autumn afternoon, a lively crowd was fairly squealing as it poured over racks and riffled piles. A young woman clutching a striped halter handed over her dollar and exclaimed, "What a steal! I feel like I'm robbing you."

If there has been, in fact, an end to irony, no one has bothered to tell the people at Mod World—the store specializes in a brand of knowing kitsch that includes Barbie watches, lava lamps, disco balls, and candles decorated with the likenesses of Charlie's Angels. Behind the counter, Keith admits that "some days are dismal," but says that the shop's location, on First Avenue between two popular restaurants (First and Three of Cups), means that weekends are pretty good. "Kids are still on the streets and people are still eating out," Keith says, and they're still stopping by for a postprandial fuzzy camouflage purse or a pink "Like a Virgin" baby tee. "With the holidays coming, hopefully people will have the shopping spirit. Anyway, we're trying to keep an upbeat mindset."

Kimberly at Anna on east 3rd street
photo: Jay Muhlin
Kimberly at Anna on east 3rd street

But not every store in the area confines itself to $5 blouses or jokey watches. At MoMo FaLana, the sensibility may be raffish but the tariffs are far higher and the clientele—Britney Spears, Rob Thomas, and Uma Thurman among them—downright illustrious. This is as glamorous as Avenue A gets, with a slick store that would be at home on Madison Avenue and a stock of dramatic tie-dyed frocks, shirts, and lingerie dresses that exude a Janis Joplin-meets-Jean Harlow air. "What can I tell you—it's been difficult," confesses Michael Lublin, the shop's owner and designer. "The general atmosphere of our city and neighborhood have been extremely affected. I don't want to make it sound like people are zombies, but business has been low." MoMo FaLana was to have had its first Bryant Park fashion show on September 13, a real achievement for a line that got its start in the outdoor section of the 26th Street flea market. "Thirty hours before the show, our whole year crumbled like a twin tower." Like Shazzam, MoMo FaLana is deeply affected by the falloff in out-of-town visitors. Still, says Lublin, surrounded by racks of brilliantly hued $350 bed jackets and rainbow-dyed slip dresses, "There's something to be said for color therapy. We're happy to be able to bring some beauty into the world of the East Village." In the window, Lublin has placed a small American flag, a symbol that years ago was anathema in these parts, and a hand-lettered sign that says "Peace and Love." "We try to think of good things—we don't want to dwell."

The deluxe tie-dye business may be slow, but not every fashion house is singing the blues. "Nothing has changed at all! Everything's absolutely fine, we're not having any problems," claims the young woman with the Farah Fawcett hair and the striped nails and the baby voice behind the counter at Anna on East 3rd Street. "Our customers are mostly local or people who have read about the store and know to come here—not just people wandering around." Kimberly thinks people like Anna's clothes "because she has basic pieces, really pretty and not too flashy—and they're not expensive either." What passes for basics on East 3rd Street include long lace skirts that could have come out of the wardrobe trunk of The Women, trousers that Kimberly says are "good for girls that work, but they also really rock and roll," and turtlenecks with extra long sleeves that droop far beyond the hands, giving the wearer a cozy feeling she probably lost when she graduated from footed pajamas. Anna's owner kept the store open on what Kimberly calls "the day of," when practically every other business in the neighborhood was shut tight. "I felt almost weird in the beginning, but we wanted to make a place where girls could come and say hello and see that not everything was different."

 
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