Best Of :: Shopping & Services
A world away from the taxis honking in Fourth Avenue traffic, Alabaster Bookshop is small and sepia-tinged, with crisscrosses of books that extend as far up as the ladders alongside the shelves can reach. The endearingly cluttered shop is peppered with figures: a gnome on the light switch, a butler carrying a tray of real books, a bust of Chopin at the cash register. Old, colorful paperback editions of books like 1984 and Princess Pamela's Soul Food Cookbook are in plastic bags pinned to a mounted shelf on the ceiling. Books here are time capsules, with different editions of the same title arranged side by side. The monochrome khaki cover of Wuthering Heights from 1978 and the manga-ish cover of Wuthering Heights from 2013 speak volumes about the years they were published. But the more they change, the more they stay the same: The cover of a book marked 60 cents and titled Why Are You Still Single? features a woman on a fainting couch, smoking a cigarette. Books the size of matchboxes (Fashion: Bustles to Bikinis, Quotations From Chairman Mao); a book of poetry written in code, called The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed, which claims to be the first book ever written by a computer; and novelizations of movies and TV shows are among what you'll find in the atmospheric heaps. "I like the surprised looks on people's faces when I find a book they ask for," a clerk imparts. "It's a store full of surprises."
In olden times, circa 1999, Manhattan friends used to sneer at the notion of a dinner invitation that required them to trek all the way out to Brooklyn. Now that those people have colonized the very borough they once despised, it's time for savvy New Yorkers to seek out any secret pockets those pesky hipsters might have overlooked. Exhibit A: Washington Heights, one of the liveliest, most livable, and, for now, most affordable Manhattan neighborhoods. Pre-war apartment buildings abound, but there are few small brownstones — that means you won't have ambitious, disingenuously affluent Brooklyn types buying them up and turning them into mini-mansions. The conveniences you look for in any Manhattan neighborhood — diners, grocery stores, mom-and-pop dry-cleaning establishments — are plentiful, and the upper reaches of Broadway are dotted with enough cheap, tasty Dominican restaurants to keep you exploring for months. Best of all, you get to live near one of the most majestic bridges in the city, if not the nation: The George Washington Bridge, spanning the Hudson since 1931, is here to welcome you to your new neighborhood. Oh, and once you've moved here, don't share the secret with anyone else.
Most of us working New Yorkers have arrived at the bleak, almost Zen acceptance that when we leave our apartments at the beginning of the day, we likely won't be back for another 10 to 12 hours. Books, laptops, lunches, sports equipment — it all comes with us. But the one essential thing we can't bring along is our bathroom. If you've got to go around the Grand Central area, you're in luck — no need to buy a superfluous beverage from a coffee chain just to use the amenities. The public restrooms at Bryant Park have been maintained to a nearly absurd standard of excellence ever since the 95-year-old building that houses the facilities underwent a $200,000 renovation in 2006. We know what you're thinking: "A park restroom? Don't those exist solely for shooting drugs and/or illicit hookups? Do they even have toilets?" Well, this one does — and how. The mosaic-tiled toilettes are clean (to say the very least), and consistently well-stocked with soap, paper towels — and fresh flowers in a large decorative copper vase. Ten-foot coffered ceilings feature handsome crown molding and cove lighting. And here's the kicker: There's a full-time attendant to tidy up, spray air freshener, and help keep the line in check. A separate alcove with a vanity ledge and mirror framed in cherrywood is convenient for touching up makeup and ensuring speedy sink turnover. Moms can rely on the sturdy baby-changing table (made out of bianco-verde marble imported from India). Lavish? You bet! The new design is modeled on the facilities at the Plaza and the Waldorf. It's the most-used public restroom in any city park but no worse for wear. Former NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe called it the "gold standard for park comfort stations," and we full-bladderedly agree.
You can take all the selfies you want during the Nets game or concert you're taking in at Barclays Center, but nothing will compare to the high-quality photo you can shoot in one of the four MetroPCS Photo Booths therein. The booths function as phone-charging stations on their exteriors, but the interiors, designed to harken back to phone booths of yore, are actually photo booths where you can shoot yourself for free, then email or text the result to yourself. The background's a black-and-white photo of the Brooklyn Bridge, guaranteed to inform your Facebook pals exactly where you were last night (or to remind yourself, if you, um, overindulged). While someone else is hogging the bright-purple booth and you're waiting on the wrong side of the door, you can keep abreast of the game or show on one of the TV monitors built into the exterior walls, all while juicing up your device. Hooray for multitasking!
Unless you live in Queens, neither of New York City's two aerial entry points is all that appealing. JFK and LaGuardia, neither of which is known for its comfort or amenities (unless you're fortunate enough to be flying JetBlue out of its newish JFK terminal), will also cost you north of $30 in cab fare both to and from. So we're thankful Newark Liberty International Airport exists. EWR is modern and spacious, and accommodates just about every carrier in the sky. But that's not the best part. The best part is that you can get there from Penn Station for the price of a New Jersey Transit ticket. If you work in Manhattan and are flying in the evening, you can be at your gate in 30 minutes for a little more than 10 bucks. (Don't take Amtrak. Costs way more.) It's enough to make you forget that you have to hang out in Newark for an hour before your vacation begins.
In a city packed with sleek high-rise hotels of the first order, the Sugar Hill Harlem Inn stands out for its sustained ability to offer just as regal an experience as the big guys do. At heart, this cozy home away from home is a true bed-and-breakfast, complete with common room and friendly cat. The 1906 Victorian townhouse is located in the neighborhood's most storied district, the site of the Harlem Renaissance, the birth of jazz, and countless political movements. Renovations in 2001 stayed true to the building's original design while incorporating modern amenities. Owner Jeremy Archer has always held the history of Sugar Hill in high regard, and will be happy to chat with you about it or point the way to local landmarks. Nine rooms (split between two locations — another equally opulent townhouse is located six blocks away, at 408 Convent Avenue) are named and designed after famous Sugar Hill dwellers, including Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Malcolm X, and Nina Simone. The Josephine Baker Room is as fun and sexy as its namesake, with wild prints and portraits of the dancer over the large fireplace. But the Lena Horne room, with its elaborate molding, chandelier, and romantic canopy, is our pick. Morning coffee in the peaceful backyard garden is a must. With room rates starting at $125 per night, Sugar Hill is a veritable bargain. (Seriously, they must order their mattresses in bulk from Heaven. That comfy.) The small and accommodating staff remembers your name, providing personalized service — and it's their good company, combined with a knowledge of New York history, that makes this the ideal place to put up your out-of-town relatives or to retreat to for a quick staycation of your own.