“That used to be a wonderful Indian-owned supermarket called Strawberry Fields,” Robert Sietsema says, gazing wistfullly across Bleecker Street into what is now a pitch-black expanse called Reiss that features silver-beaded tunics and red patent spiked heels in its windows. “This Burittoville used to be the Lafayette Bakery, which moved over to Greenwich Avenue. It was run by Greeks pretending to be French.”
Sietsema, esteemed Voice restaurant critic, colleague, and old friend, has agreed to give me a tour of the new Bleecker Street because—though as a compulsive shopper I am, of course, aware of the changes that the arrival of dozens of ritzy boutiques have wrought—I need someone with a longer institutional memory to give me some perspective. Sietsema, who has lived at the corner of Bleecker and Perry for 17 years, is the man for the job.
I suggest we start at the corner of Christopher and Bleecker, where Dave’s Army Navy store stood for many years until it was replaced by the rather repulsively named Spa Belles. (Do we really need this “belle” business? Doesn’t “belle” evoke hoopskirts and antebellum plantations and slavery, or am I just cranky?) But Sietsema, who is, after all, a food guy, wants our tour to be begin at Seventh Avenue South, so he can show me where his favorite supermarket once stood.
“That Basic Boxes use to be Porto Rico Coffee,” Sietsema sighs. “They keep closing fun stores for ones that are much less interesting.” In front of an eyeglass shop called SEE, we chat about how many other eyeglass places there are on the street, and how they’re always empty, and how the only way they can make money is because of their markup, since they charge $500 for what must be five cents worth of plastic.
At number 316 there’s still a Chinese laundry, one of the last holdouts from the days when this was a neighborhood of impoverished hipsters and working-class families. “There was the most fantastic Portuguese vegetable stand at Bleecker and Carmine,” Sietsema tells me. “This neighborhood was a mix of Portuguese and Italian with the Catholic church as their anchor.” Add to this the bohemians huddled in tenement flats, the kind of people memorialized in Simon and Garfunkel’s 1964 “Bleecker Street”: “A poet reads his crooked rhyme . . . $30 pays your rent on Bleecker Street.” (Hope you held on to that apartment! Hope you bought it when the building went co-op! Now you’re rich!)
In my own shopping lifetime, I remember a vintage clothing store called Dorothy’s Closet at 355 Bleecker, run by a hip girl with long hair and glasses. Local legend has it that Dorothy fell in love with the Moroccan guy who ran the newsstand next door and they got married. In any case, the vintage shop has been replaced by a stunning flower shop called Ovando’s, but the newsstand is still there.
We pass a swanky shoe store called Verve, and Sietsema shudders; I decide not to tell him that a few weeks ago I bought a pair of Repetto silver jazz shoes in this very shop. (But they’re very bohemian! Diane di Prima might have worn them!) So many places have vanished in the past few years—like the man with the thick Italian accent who sold hopeless junk and Old Japan Antiques, which arrived the same time Sietsema did. “The owner told me he took a wheelbarrow full of dead rats out of the basement when he moved in,” Sietsema recalls fondly. At the Steve Madden store, Sietsema lapses into full-blown nostalgia. “This was a bodega run by Turks! They sold hundreds of different kinds of beer! They made sandwiches in a really weird space in the back of the store!”
OK, Robert, calm down. If it makes you feel any better, the end of Bleecker-as-we-know-it has been mourned for a long time, at least since 1872, when James D. McCabe wrote of the street in Lights and Shadows of New York Life: or, the Sights and Sensations of the Great City: “Twenty-five years ago they were homes of wealth and refinement. Now . . . the old mansions are put to the viler uses of third-rate boarding houses and restaurants.”
One of those former boardinghouses is home to Miguelina, in the space formerly held by a gift-and-glassware boutique called Details. Sietsema isn’t happy about this: “Despite the fact that not everyone liked Details, it was better than what replaced it.” In point of fact, I’d rather have Miguelina’s jeweled-button brocade coat than a crystal tumbler anytime—but I don’t open my mouth and shatter the mood. He has a similar insight at Cynthia Rowley, which was once the Moondog ice cream parlor. “When it opened,” he says, “everyone said the neighborhood was going downhill. But I enjoyed a few cones there.” Likewise, the stupid (and now closed) Condomania, clearly intended for tourists, “seemed like the beginning of the end when it opened—everyone who lives around here knew their rubbers were twice as expensive.”
But I am not at the moment craving a rubber, cheap or expensive. What I want is someone to talk to about 19th-century dolls, someone like Susan Parrish, who used to sell such toys at 390, the current home of yet another Ralph Lauren outpost. I became friendly with Parrish more than a decade ago when I ventured into her store to discuss her annual Christmas window, a panoply of beat-up century-old playthings that emboldened me to begin collecting. (I now have about 800 of them—maybe Parrish wasn’t such a good influence after all.) In a stunning burst of irony, Ralph Lauren has filled this place with his own ersatz collectibles, including a canvas RL rucksack for $795.
West of Perry the really high-end boutiques have taken up residence, replacing what Sietsema terms “all those little gay-owned antique stores.” But it’s not the paucity of 18th-century French armoires that nearly brings tears to his eyes, it’s the demise of the Chatterbox, which he calls his beloved laundromat. (Can there be such a thing?) For the record, the premises are now occupied by Robert Marc, an eyeglass store.
Suddenly I see Sietsema’s nostrils flare—this is not just a figure of speech! I saw it! He is staring with undisguised disgust at a line of fresh-faced happy people curled around the Magnolia Bakery, the place world-famous for its cupcakes, the place made to look as if it’s on Main Street in some one-horse whistlestop instead of down the block from the Brunello Cucinelli cashmere store. Sietsema takes one look at those iced treats and snarls, “They’re poison.”
He reminds me that the Magnolia replaced a pet store, which I seem to recall was called Birds of Paradise, or some such, and had a lot of indoor foliage and was hot as hell and sold toucans. “And ibises!” Sietsema says. “Well, maybe not ibises. Their legs are too long. But lots of fun birds!”
We seek out number 411, the site of the Paris Commune restaurant and now a James Perse shop. (It’s just down the block from where Lauren Bacall lived when she was crowned Miss Greenwich Village 1942.) Marc Jacobs used to like to eat at the Paris Commune, and it’s supposedly where he first cooked up the plan that led, perhaps unwittingly, to the destruction of the old Bleecker Street. “What a cute little block!” Jacobs reportedly thought one evening, shoving a bite of tartine into his mouth. “I think I’ll open a little store here.” And so it happened that Marc opened store after store on Bleecker, and Ralph, Tommy, Cynthia, Steve, et al. duly followed suit.
At this point Sietsema decides he’s had enough and, no, he doesn’t wish to accompany me into the Marc Jacobs shop just across the street from his house, the one where Marc had the genius idea of selling trinkets and trifles for $10 and $15.
So I go in alone and briefly consider an Op-Art belt for $25. Then I realize that I’m hungry, I want something sweet! I make sure that Sietsema has gone up to his apartment and isn’t looking out the window, and then, with deep shame, I join the cupcake line.