Shopping Districts

Buttons, Diamonds, and Cannabis Soap

You need a button. Just one button, for that vintage jacket you bought at a stoop sale, perfect in every regard save the missing fastener.

Fortunately, you're in New York. Elsewhere you might be reduced to scrounging through an inadequate selection at the local Wal-Mart. Here, you'll find a whole street dominated by BUTTON PURVEYORS—39th between Seventh and Eighth, to be exact. In the cramped confines of stores like La Button Boutique (250 West 39th), you can rummage through dusty boxes for the perfect match. This being part of the mostly wholesale garment district, you'll have a minimum purchase of $3. In the surrounding blocks—known in common parlance as the MILLINERY DISTRICt back when people wore hats—you can pick up a variety of other trimmings and notions, from tassels to tiaras.

Ask longtime New Yorkers where to get a given item and they'll toss off the answer after fluttering through the Yellow Pages in their minds (feathers? 36th and 37th streets). Not only that, they'll assure you that they know where you'll pay the best price. The city, if you know it well enough, is like an enormous, more-or-less-organized closet. Retailers and wholesalers of various goods and services tend to clump together, exposing themselves to the vicissitudes of competition in a supreme—if sometimes doomed—display of capitalistic confidence. Shoppers come away with the illusion, at least, of having gotten a deal.

The DIAMOND DISTRICT, centered on 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, may be the best-known example of the phenomenon. Show up around 10 a.m. or so, and watch as dozens of shopkeepers set out their wares in window after window, tenderly dusting off the velvet throats of their display models and draping them with glittering gold and jewels. Upstairs, dealers move most of the diamonds that enter the United States. Within the malls at street level, you can pick up a $20,000 diamond ring or a safe to keep it in; if you're in a divesting mode, follow the blinking red signs offering LOANS.

Head up Seventh Avenue through one of the city's tackier shopping sections: the TOURIST JUNK DISTRICT, where you can buy all the Statue of Liberty snow globes and animated Dean Martin statuettes you could ever want. On 48th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, in a row of shops selling MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS, are the once-dueling retailers Manny's and Sam Ash, where they'll sell you anything from a harmonica to an acoustic bass. Manny's, where Hendrix used to shop, was bought out in 1999 by its rival, so the semblance of competition between the two is today just that. But independents remain, including the International Woodwind and Brass Center (up the dingy stairs at 174 West 48th), and a tiny adjacent storefront hawking accordions. Colony Music, at the corner of 49th Street and Broadway, will supply the score.

Around Rockefeller Center is a cluster of shops selling FOREIGN-LANGUAGE BOOKS. Looking for Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase in the original Japanese? You'll find it at Kinokuniya Bookstore at 10 West 49th Street. And the Librairie de France, with its entrance on the mall between Fifth Avenue and the skating rink, will be happy to sell you an unabridged bilingual edition of Le Petit Prince.

Sometimes you don't even need to be buying to get a rush from the city's concentrated shopping energy. Walk down chaotic 28th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, the heart of the mostly wholesale FLOWER DISTRICT, and you're overwhelmed by the heady persistence of supply and demand for something so ephemeral—piles of roses furled tight as cigars on the sidewalks, banks of orchids ablaze behind grimy windows.

On the stretch of ORCHARD STREET between Stanton and Delancey, where spiffy municipal signs proclaim "the Bargain District," disheveled old men emerge suddenly from between racks of metallic leather jackets muttering "only $99" as if they were dealing crack instead of coats. People have been shilling for schmattes in this neighborhood for well over 100 years, and down along Grand Street between Orchard and Ludlow, there are still a number of places to buy old-lady underwear ("Bras $5" reads the sign at Sultan Bras and Girdles, 330 Grand Street). Between Mott and Elizabeth, Chinese pharmacies like Kamwo (209-211 Grand Street), feature men standing behind the counter folding piles of dried herbs and fungi into neat paper packets.

The Bowery south of Houston is another venerable commercial strip. The KITCHENWARE DISTRICt—with its ranks of pizza ovens, restaurant chairs, and meat slicers—gives way, after crossing Delancey, to the glitz and shimmer of the lighting district, which in turn is supplanted by the DOWNTOWN JEWELRY DISTRICTthat turns the corner of Bowery onto Canal (jade and marvelously peculiar gold figurines are the specialties here). The exhaust-laden Western end of Canal Street near the Holland Tunnel is home to an unlikely combination of CAR-STEREO OUTLETS AND PLASTICS STORES. Industrial Plastic Supply (309 Canal Street) stands ready to provide shimmering curtains of Mylar fringe, or nearly life-size statues of camels, while at Canal Rubber (329 Canal Street), they've recently added yoga mats (only $16.95! in four colors!) to their inventory of hoses and tubing.

Some of the city's most arcane and delightful commercial sections, like the booksellers' row on Fourth Avenue, have succumbed to history; others, like the flower district, are endangered. The thriving radio district was cleared aside for the building of the World Trade Center. And the once-lively rivalry between Miller's and Kauffman's equestrian shops on East 24th Street was stamped out when Baruch College built its massive new campus, destroying the 90-year-old row of former stables where Kauffman's made its home. Now Miller's is called Copperfield's (117 East 24th Street), and while you can still buy a snaffle bit there, it isn't the same.

But the boroughs, as usual, are picking up the slack. In Jackson Heights, Queens, 74th Street is the place to go for INDIAN GOODS from saris to gold-filigree jewelry. And along the increasingly Islamified section of Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue between Smith and Fulton, there's a newish crop of stores where you can buy shea butter by the pound, as well as items like INCENSE AND ESSENTIAL OILS. "Cannabis"-scented soap? They can get it for you wholesale. Or, in the great New York shopping tradition, they'll make you believe that they did.

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