Best Of :: Shopping & Services
The boroughs have charming little thrifts, like Carroll Gardens' Union Max, where you can get Bakelite, glass beads, and weird printed matter like '70s concert programs (Elton John—with these photos, how'd we miss he was gay?) and '50s educational comics about VD. But you can't much furnish a home or wardrobe with those. Housing Works' several Manhattan thrift shops are still hard to beat for classy, usable furniture and clothing, and we have our best luck at the Chelsea store. They're well-supplied—sometimes with new items, like the Theory shirt we picked up at half-price—and how can you say no to a red velvet sleeper couch for $95? Or, for the same price, a Mart Stam Cantilever Armchair—maybe a knockoff, and a little dinged up, but still a beauty? The small thrifts have more thrilling tchotchkes, but Housing Works is worth renting a van for.
"Why can't you just blow-dry your own hair?" a perplexed boyfriend once asked us as we extolled the virtues of professional salon blow-outs. Well, we can, but a lifetime of television and women's magazines have us convinced that we're hopelessly inadequate at it, and our lack of follicle finesse is keeping us from reaching our truest beauty. Plus, it's just fun to have someone else wash your hair. But salons are pricey and time-consuming, which is why we like the efficient glamour of Blow, the "blow-dry bar." The two locations (one in Chelsea, the other on the UES) specialize in quick, immaculate blow-dry and styling services; the prices are cheaper than they are at a salon, and the branches offer fun little extras, such as Prosecco for bachelorette parties. It's like Starbucks for your scalp.
On Fashion's Night Out—Anna Wintour's citywide September party to get everyone shopping again—I was speaking with local designer Maria Cornejo, one of Michelle Obama's favorites, about something that has been bothering me for a long time: the popularity and proliferation of fast-fashion chains. Cornejo, who was having a trunk show at Barneys, predicted that, in our new economy, more shoppers would turn to quality instead of trendy, disposable fashions. "Fast fashion is on its way out," she said.
Was she right? Or was it just wishful thinking?
Of all my friends who shop at the chains, either exclusively or occasionally—and that would be everyone I know—no one seems to be reconsidering how much they shop at, say, H&M. And, really, is it fair to ask people not to shop at the chains when money is so tight?
Well, if you live in a part of America where the chains are your only option (and that's a lot of the country), then it's fine. But if you live in New York City, and you still really prefer the chains, I have to ask: What are you thinking? There are countless amazing, unique, even transformative small shops that would love your business. Or, at least, there were a lot of them before the economy collapsed.
Everywhere you look, it seems as if another boutique is being shuttered.
The boom times, it's true, did create a lot of excess, and perhaps not every boutique deserves to stay just because it's small and independent. But while the boutiques are closing, the chains are expanding. H&M is now up to 14 stores. Remember how quaint it was when there was just one?
The city's future needs to be in the hands of the young designers, the ones who represent the best of New York. From Shana Tabor's adorable sailor dresses and delicate charm necklaces at her shop In God We Trust, to the perfect fit of Steven Alan's oxford shirts at his namesake boutiques, to the timeless frocks of Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award winner Emma Fletcher of Lyell in Nolita, these are just a few who make the city unique. Add to it that these three, as well as many other local indie designers, make their clothes by hand in the Garment District, which also needs our help, and you can feel your dollar making a difference every time you shop with them.
But I can hear you ardent Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters fans saying, "I can't afford a $300 dress!"—which, yes, is the average price at many of these shops, making them cheaper than the big designers but more expensive than the chains. However, I actually think you can.
In the recession of 2001, out of work and desperate for new clothes, I took my unemployment check to Zara for a button-down blouse and to H&M for a burgundy sweater for the bargain price of $60. Within weeks, that blouse, which never fit right (as clothes rarely do from the chains), started to unravel from the bottom up. And the sweater? It shrunk and faded to an unflattering pink, despite my washing it by hand in cold water. Disposable clothes never cost much individually, but, because they don't last long, they become more expensive in the long run.
First, I got over the notion that I needed tons of clothes and began saving for pieces I really wanted. It's hardly the American way, but it's a better choice for your closet and the environment. (Did you know the average American throws away 68 pounds of clothing and textiles a year?) Second, I went to indie designers' sample sales—another advantage that New York shoppers have over the rest of the country (for sale news, try refinery29.com, a website devoted to the indies). You'll find incredible markdowns—maybe even that $300 dress for $80—and you might get to see Maggie Gyllenhaal trying on a blouse right next to you (true story! We were both at Steven Alan). Third, I checked out the thrift stores for everyday basics like cardigans, blazers, and button-down shirts that are much better quality and far cheaper than the chains. And it feels good to know that when I spend money at Housing Works in Tribeca or the Cancer Care Thrift Shop on the Upper East Side or a Salvation Army in the outer boroughs (where I found my beloved vintage Oscar de la Renta sweater for $10), it's going to a good cause.
And when visitors come to town and ask where the Banana Republic is—as if the one in New York is somehow better—I steer them toward the local shops. A favorite is always Trash and Vaudeville, which has been in the East Village for more than 30 years and is a secret of fashion-magazine stylists for its brand of sturdy $50 jeans.
Yes, it takes more thought, effort, and patience to shop at the boutiques, sample sales, and thrift stores. But I don't live here because I want it all to come easy. I don't suffer interminable subway delays, push my laundry in a rickety cart to the laundromat, and pay a lot in rent for an apartment with no closets, just so that, at the end of the day, I can eat at T.G.I. Friday's and shop at the mall. I live here because New York gives people the opportunity to become the individuals they've always dreamed of being. And if we want it to stay that way, we have to think about how and where we spend our money. Of course, as an extra special reward for all of this hard work and careful shopping, you'll never again have to avoid your coworker because she showed up wearing the same clothes as you.
Most of the video/DVD places left in town are chain stores overstocked with Nicolas Cage films and Care Bears adventures, but Alan's Alley Video remains a sprawling, casual, neighborhood gem of a place with some real finds on the shelves. Filling in where the departed Kim's Video left off, the old standby Alan's has its share of movie-channel-ready women's classics (Back Street, Imitation of Life), giddy campfests (The Happy Hooker), pitch-dark midnight flicks (Performance, Crimes of Passion), and even some films we've never heard of, which is always a good sign. So is the fact that membership is free, and the service is personable. An added bonus: Some of the customers are the type that talk to themselves while scouring the shelves (in between chatting to their dogs)—a compelling cinematic treat in itself, though they should stick to the horror section.
UrbanDictionary.com defines a bodega as a "Latin mini-mart," and who are we to argue? The key word, of course, is "Latin." And for lovers of Mexican goods in particular, the sun shines upon Mexico 2000, a quaint shop under the J/M/Z line in East Williamsburg. Here, the imported treats range from Jumex juices, Abuelita hot chocolate, pulp of tamarind, Bimbo pastries, and, our favorite, Duvalin cream candy. You can also pick up Caprice shampoo, Lala dairy products, fresh veggies, and, best of all, homemade Mexican food in the back of the store. There's no rush for takeout, especially not when you can sit down and eat your soupy pinto beans and sopes while watching telenovelas or the soccer game from the huge, mounted television with a saint statue planted adjacent to it. Now this is the sort of comfort that you can't get at Gristedes or Duane Reade.
Last fall, we were walking past our favorite independent bookstore, BookCourt, when we stopped and did a double-take. The once-crammed shop in Boerum Hill had doubled in size, adding an extra 1,800 feet, with a new sky-lit ceiling and a large room for hosting the kinds of readings and panel discussions you would never find at the nearby Barnes & Noble. (For instance, on a recent summer evening, the store was packed with hip, young literary types who came to see author and longtime BookCourt customer Jonathan Ames have knives hurled dangerously close to his face by a man simply named The Great Throwdini.) This is the kind of store where obscure literary magazines are proudly on display in the front window, not hidden on some bottom shelf, and where the staff handwrites short, convincing recommendations of books that are decidedly not in Oprah's Book Club. And somehow, in the face of Amazon, the Kindle, and the ominous presence of Barnes & Noble, this family-run shop continues to thrive. According to owner Henry Zook, who opened BookCourt in 1981 with Mary Gannett (their son, Zack, is the general manager), business has been up ever since the expansion. Who says print is dead?