For flea marketeers, Manhattan can be a mighty sad place. No garage sales. No auctions, except for the kind where a Picasso goes for 100 mil. Worst of all, the area around 26th Street and Sixth Avenue, once a vast series of indoor and outdoor markets, has shrunk severely in the last several years, apartment buildings shooting up in the lots that used to boast racks of fetid clothes and tables full of broken radios.
Thus we’re interested to hear about the SEAPORT ANTIQUE MARKET, scheduled for every other Sunday until October (the next is May 23) on Fulton Street at the South Street Seaport. Opening day, we take the A to Broadway-Nassau, then walk down unlovely Fulton, our spirits sinking at the unbroken vista of Duane Reades and Burger Kings, half expecting this retail dullness will infect the new market. So we are pleasantly surprised—stunned, actually—when we arrive at a cobblestoned corridor, albeit ringed by a Gap and a Body Shop, to find authentic collectibles rather than the tube socks and underwear that blight so many similar venues. (Then again, the “your name on a grain of rice” guy is already permanently ensconced at the Seaport.) At the very first table, glass drawer pulls that might have started life on a 1930s bureau are $12 each; further on, a pair of exquisite 1920s evening shoes are $58; a steamer trunk that dates from the age when the seaport was a seaport is $195. (All prices are pre-bargaining; we think it’s immoral to haggle for informational purposes only.)
Once we cross South Street and are nearer the water, the proximity of salt and sea and ships ameliorates, if only a little, the looming Pizzeria Uno a few feet away. We eavesdrop at an incongruously high-end dealer (bet she won’t be back) who is selling diamond jewelry, and witness a young shopper crushed to find out that the necklace she likes is $1,450. A few feet away another vendor, who comes from Bucks County, is offering what must be thousands of tear sheets that have been scissored from vintage magazines, then mounted and shrink-wrapped. An ad for a turn-of the-century girdle is $5; the cover of the October 1923 Pictorial Review is $15. “People told me to raise the prices if I was coming to New York,” the dealer confides, “but I couldn’t be bothered.”
Faced with a choice between a $1,450 pendant and a $5 picture, we pick neither, but wander instead into the Pier 17 Pavilion, a mall on the river that is full of dull, hackneyed stores. The only place that interests us at all is called NEIGHBORHOODIES and sells prosaic tees and sweats that can be custom inscribed with hand-sewn block letters while you wait. (Something called a Tijuana tank is $22.99, including lettering.) Though the samples suggest sentiments along the lines of “Bobby’s Girl” and “Erasmus High School,” there is nothing to prevent you from requesting a shirt that reads, “Rummy Must Go.”
It is impossible for us to visit this part of town and not go to CENTURY 21, which many people think is the best store in New York. And it is, in a way, if you can get past the clanging atmosphere and the fact that the thing you have your heart set on is usually not your size or, at least this far along in the season, runs a fair chance of being damaged. (Of two Galliano sweaters we love, one has an eviscerated neck and the other a sprung elbow.) We are amused to see a bunch of those shark-infested Balenciaga tees that were so incredibly hot last summer for $139.97; but then again, something that was so hot last year is, well, so last year. You might be happier with a blue-and-white striped Gaultier zip-front for $59.99, or better yet, one of Century’s many Martin Margiela tops, most of which are priced around $70. The mysterious Margiela, who is never photographed and will only be interviewed by fax (could this lack of charisma have anything to do with his being replaced as designer for Hermès by Gaultier? What a small world is fashion . . . ), has distinguished his shirts with gauzy overlays, deliberately raw seams, and other flourishes: The only thing missing, it would seem, is a message to the defense secretary.