Nolita Complex


Sure, you can take a hundred dollars and buy something at Macy’s, or H&M, or Joyce Leslie on 8th street, but wouldn’t it be fun once in a while to put that same amount to the test in a rather more glamorous setting? A hundred dollars, after all, though hopeless on Madison avenue or the designer boutiques along 57th street, should be able to get you something in a cute gentrifying downtown neighborhood, right?

To test this thesis, we took an imaginary $100 to Nolita, the former Little Italy, an area known for tiny storefront boutiques that have staked their reputations on bohemian, if pricey, interpretations of cool.

It wasn’t easy—if only we’d had an imaginary $150, how our horizons would have expanded!—but with a little digging it wasn’t impossible. We employed one ground rule: no fancy $100 underpants or bandannas or key chains or other such throwaways. We wanted an item of fashion we’d be genuinely excited about owning.

Of course, shopping rules are made to be broken. At our very first stop, Sample (268 Elizabeth Street), a classic Nolita boutique set up in what was probably once a grocery or candy store (it still has its tin ceiling and tile floor), we fell for a ridiculous $28 candle from the French company Esteban that supposedly smelled like pie and chocolate. “Try it,” urged the saleswoman. “They nailed it!” We sniffed, and a calorie-free aroma of dessert flooded our poor sad senses. Thus intoxicated, we dared ask the price of a supremely desirable tote bag of pink-and-white gingham decorated with two dogs, an appliquéd fire hydrant, and a fringe of Astroturf. It was $120, but, according to the shop, 20 percent of the price goes to New York’s firefighters, so in fact the bag clocked in at an acceptable $96, minus the enforced charitable donation.

Next door, Blue Bag (266 Elizabeth Street) had even more purses than Sample. (Why is Nolita so full of handbag shops? Could it be because the designer clothes hardly fit anybody?) The salesperson warmed to the $100 challenge, touting three straw bags that were $75 each—a natural version with bamboo handles just like those atop the Tom Ford Saint Laurent bag that is everywhere (well, everywhere in the Hamptons) this summer; a raspberry beach-ready affair large enough for a stash of supermarket tabloids and those ubiquitous bottles of water; and a stiff blue wicker number with an inside drawstring to thwart pickpockets. There was nothing wrong with any of them, but for our money, a $55 cherry-printed nylon tote that looked like it was made from a 1940s tablecloth was the cheeriest thing in the shop.

There was sure to be something for less than $100 at Albanese Meats & Poultry, a last link to a fading Italian retail past, but instead of settling for a chop we crossed the street and entered a store with no visible name and a lily pad floating in water in the window. The shop turned out to be Me & Ro (239 Elizabeth Street), the flagship of a pair of jewelry designers whose work is geared to a fashion-forward, yoga-addicted clientele. In any case, the salesman was not all that enthusiastic about our mission. “Less than $100? Well, there’s the silver Buddha pendant, women love that.” Why is it the Buddha pendant? “It’s tiny, but it is in the shape of the Buddha. And wait, the Devotion pendant—it has Sanskrit writing on it—is $80, I guess.”

Fearing that a handbag or a necklace would pretty much constitute our options, we visited Calypso (280 Mott Street), perhaps the best known of Nolita’s clothing shops, and the place that is at least somewhat responsible for getting young women to shed their black outfits in favor of ruffly raspberry and saffron duds. Unfortunately, but for some vibrantly colored undershirts (and we vowed no underwear), a fringed suede hippie belt ($50), and a basket of $25 French espadrilles that turned out to be made in Spain, our $100 didn’t go very far. So we were more than a little pleased at Zero (225 Mott Street), a quintessential renovated-to-death Nolita store—poured concrete floor, wavy white walls—with the kind of clothes that usually don’t get near $100 except on triple markdown.

“They’re our bestsellers and they’re on sale for $93!” said the clerk, a young woman with ironed-flat hair, showing off a pair of khaki trousers with a wide waistband and a curved seam down the legs. A dramatically oversized T-shirt—it could serve as a dress—was decorated with squiggly writing that, no matter how long you stared at it, was indecipherable. It turned out the scribbling was something of an art project. According to the saleswoman, “The designer’s husband—he’s a photographer—he’s dyslexic, and that’s what his writing looks like.”

The fun of Nolita, and boutique-crammed shopping neighborhoods like it, is discovering things you just don’t find anywhere else. At Helen Marien (250 Mott Street), yet another elegant handbag shop, we were sure our $100 would get us laughed out the door. Instead we uncovered a cache of weird necklaces ($85) and hair barrettes ($42) made from leaves gathered in Brazil and Riverside Park. “The designer brings a special kind of clay from Brazil and it adheres to the leaves and makes them really hard,” explained the saleswoman, showing us how the odd fossilized leaves were fused to a mysterious green substance.

The leaf accessories had a certain decadent charm, but their frothy appeal quickly melted in the somber atmosphere of SSUR (219 Mulberry Street), a chic shop whose windows bear the slogan “Solidarity With the People” in various languages. Inside, $100 easily covered both a $28 T-shirt with the slogan “Make your Marx” and a portrait of Karl himself, and a $68 cotton sweater bearing the famous silk-screened likeness of Che Guevara. Despite its political pretensions, the store had a distinct skater sensibility, though when this was suggested to the callow youths behind the counter, one shrugged and muttered, “Not necessarily.” Still, someone managed to puncture the staff’s slacker reserve. As we lingered over a shirt inscribed “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows . . . ” an elderly Italian neighbor, who looked like she had been on the block for half a century, stopped by to chat up the sullen sales help. She took one look at the corn muffin a clerk was shoving in his mouth, rolled her eyes, looked heavenward, and said, “That’s what you’re eating for supper?”