We have a friend who comes to New York once a year for exactly two reasons: the backroom bars and the Magnolia bakery. On his last visit he was disappointed by the lack of really dirty saloons but at least he could still get a cupcake on Bleecker Street, even if it meant waiting in a long line with a lot of other nuts.
We were thinking about this guy the other day as we wondered down Bleecker, a street that has become less and less recognizable over the last several years. The former province of antiques dealers like Provence de Pierre Deux now boasts not one but fully three Marc Jacobs shops, one of which—the handbag store—is this season pushing a quilted, chain-handled satchel that is a meant to be a witty take on a Chanel handbag and is tagged $1300.
Actually, Jacobs is the guy who started this whole Bleecker Street migration. Before he opened his first shop here in 2000 (he was attracted to the block because he used to like to eat at the Paris Commune), Bleecker was still the preserve of hippie earring stores and neighborhood groceries.
For us, the tipping point came a few months ago, when Ralph Lauren, who already has two outposts on the block, took over a storefront which for decades was the home of Susan Parrish’s eponymous shop. Parrish, who specialized in early American quilts, 19th- century hatboxes, and other quirky collectibles, had a profound effect on our own collecting habits. Every Christmas she filled her window with well-loved turn-of-the-century toys—a spur to our own vast broken-doll collection. We once spent hours talking to her about a doll called a topsy-turvy she was selling. These late-19th-century dolls have two bodies—one black and one white— divided by a petticoat that flips over their common torso. Separate but equal, the two faces can never see each other or play together. We couldn’t get the antebellum symbolism of this doll out of our system and eventually bought it. (Parrish let us pay it off.)
Now there’s a fake 19th-century sign in the window advertising Ralph Lauren’s Double RL (it says, among other things, “Dry Goods—Bronx born, country inspired”) and serious renovation work going on within. (So Parrish’s authentic old floor and tin ceiling weren’t funky enough?)
Not that we have anything against Lauren. We of all people applaud his artful self-invention, his Jay Gatsby transformation from borough boy to ur-WASP king. It’s what makes America such a wonderful place, right?
Oh well. For all our doom and gloom, things in the historic West Village aren’t completely hopeless. At 41 Perry Street, the eccentric Geminola, with its stock of reconfigured vintage garments, many of which have been monkeyed with by the fearless owner (you won’t catch us dunking a Victorian gown into a vat of purple dye) has dreamy fairy-princess clothes and Miss Havisham-worthy (in a good way!) housewares. Though we rather wish the prices on some of the pieces were more congenial—tie-dyed beaded sweaters from the 1950s are $195—a vintage undershirt silkscreened with a dancing flapper is only $69, and the incredibly beautiful handpainted satin ballet slippers by La Voleuse are well worth $99. Not sure which lovely item to purchase—a crimson lace curtain? A persimmon crinoline?—we go around the corner, buy a cupcake and think it over.