Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Harlem Shop Trotter

Ladies' Hats ($75-$150), HATS. BY. BUN.
By Anita Sarko

Psst! Harlem is no longer scary! Think about it: President Bubba has his office up there, the latest “Indiana Jones” premiered up there ... Trust me: The streets are bustling and friendly and the shops are as diverse and exciting as those independently-owned treasure-troves were ONCE UPON A TIME further south (before Downtown’s conversion into a label lover's shopping mall). While many of Harlem’s local purveyors have been displaced by its latest “Renaissance,” those beloved establishments have tended to take root again only blocks away from their original bases. That’s a VAST improvement over Downtown, where former shopping wonders just ... DISAPPEARED?

THE BROWNSTONE owner Princess Jenkins.
My journey began at THE BROWNSTONE (24 E.125th St. 212.996.7980), AKA “Harlem’s First Fashion Enclave.” Ruled by the wondrous Princess Jenkins, this gorgeous “lifestyle shop” contains everything from clothing, hats, jewelry, make-up and great bags to fancy chocolate pretzels ($15) and chocolate/ popcorn mixes ($12). Oddly, at the very end of the high-ceilinged shop, past all the warm dark wood, comfy couches, stained glass and fireplaces, there is a bustling one-chair BARBER SHOP!

It was the only reason I could think of as to why “Saturday Night Live’s” Keenan Thompson was hanging around, unless he was soaking up the atmosphere for one of his hilarious drag characters. Then again, people do have a tendency to just hangout in Harlem’s shops: There’s a warmth and sense of community that’s really cool.

The Brownstone is geared towards the needs of women 35-65 years old. However, though you’ll have no chance of looking like “mutton dressed as lamb,” there are no woman-of-a-certain-age frumpy togs available either. Kudos go to Jenkins, whose side-gig is teaching wannabes in F.I.T.’s CEO program how to start up and run successful boutiques. It shouldn’t be surprising that she possesses a keen buyer’s eye. She’s also very hands-on in the styling department, simultaneously demonstrating myriad ways one top can be tied while issuing honest appraisals of selections being tried on. In addition, she’s a great ambassadress for Harlem shopping, offering any and all information about other unique stores in the area.

As it turned out, one of the businesses she praised to the heavens was MONTGOMERY BOUTIQUE. “You mean MONTY?” I yelped at the alarmed Jenkins. “Monty Harris? I wondered where she had disappeared to.” “She previously had a store on the Lower East Side?” Clarified Princess. “Then, you know how great her clothing is.” I most certainly do. However, Monty and I had had a falling out and hadn’t spoken in years. “It’s been so long that it’s about time we got over it.” I concluded. “Well then ... tell her I sent you ... or maybe NOT?” Princess advised, with a nervous laugh.
Clockwise from top left): Grace Chung tri-colored satin coat (Available in other color combinations ($150), necklace ($95); Adrianna Papell Dress ($135), necklace ($53); Jewelry Display; Michelle Alexander modeling 1000 Use Cobweb Sheer Hoody ($75) and Jocelyn Necklace ($150). All available at THE BROWNSTONE.
After buying two items from Princess for myself, off I went in search of other goodies ...

... which brings up two warnings about Harlem: One, the offerings are IRRESISTABLE and; two, addresses involving avenues will be given as a number, not as the names slapped onto every avenue’s signs. Locals do not use those names, which can become VERY confusing for outsiders. Expect to get occasionally lost.

Luckily, my next stop was nearly next-door: HARLEM UNDERGROUND (20 E. 125th St. 212.987.9385). First impressions aside, this is hardly a typical t-shirt shop. While Black History heroes are heavily featured as subject matter (Ali, Obama, Marley ...), they custom-make everything from biker vests to frat shirts.

The DJ and music-motif tops are far less costly than the very similar ones made by super-expensive LA-based labels.

And you HAVE to check out the imaginative earrings by the improbably named Sophia Loren Coffee: Just think what you could pair her Angela Davis’ with!
Sophia Loren Coffee Earrings ($20) from HARLEM UNDERGROUND.
Above left: Limited Edition Rebel Spirit diamante-studded Hoody ($75). Above right and below: T-Shirts and more T-Shirts. All available at HARLEM UNDERGROUND.
If you need more of a Marley-ish fix, stroll over to NICHOLAS (“Your One Stop Multi-Cultural Shop!!!”) (2035 Fifth Ave. 212.289.3628).

While all things Bob and Haile Selassie beckon you, from messenger bags to onesies, there are also beaded steering wheel covers in Jamaican flag colors, gorgeous head scarves ($10), super island CDs and hilarious “Sweetleaf Curtains” ($12: “Impress your friends”) to replace those old hippy beaded ones that are SO over.

Speaking of which ... there are incredible flavored rolling papers (chocolate, coconut, cognac ...) and chew sticks (strawberry, peppermint, grape ...) to clean your mouth with afterwards. (We are not here to judge).
Clockwise from above left: Rasta Children's T-Shirts and Onesies; I Love My Country Flag Massage Steering Wheel Covers ($10-12. NICHOLAS); Chew Sticks (2 for $1). All availbale at NICHOLAS.
After you come out of your purple haze, you might REMEMBER that you need an inspired gift for someone. EDIBLE ARRANGEMENTS (2037 Fifth Ave. 212.831.6041) is fabulous. These are fresh seasonal fruit “bouquets” that are so beautifully packaged they’ll stun you.

Additions, like chocolate dipped specialties (bananas, strawberries, pineapples, apples, oranges and pears), and “Keepsake Containers” (ceramic animals, golf and other sports balls, baby shower music boxes ...) are so worth the extra costs. This place is not only clever, but also dead serious about packaging, freshness and cleanliness. Yummy!
Melons, Pinapples and Grapes Edible Arrangement ($55 + tax. EDIBLE ARRANGEMENTS). Keepsake Containers, Stuffed Animals and Chocolate Dipping Sauce (EDIBLE ARRANGEMENTS).
Equally clever and well-made are the “Classical Originals Made For All Seasons” HATS. BY. BUNN. (2283 7th Ave. 212.694.3590). As far as serious? Hahaha. Bunn’s VERY serious about the hats he is constantly creating, but that’s about it.

“Don’t ask me any hard questions.” He directed, when he saw my pen and notebook. “Ok ... what is reality?” I asked. “Peas and rice and red snapper.” He replied. Though Alicia Keyes and Aaron Neville are among the famous who own his creations, Bunn prides himself on making hats for “everyday people.” “I pride myself on a quality piece for a fraction of the price.” He insists.
Ladies' Hats ($75-$150. HATS. BY. BUN.) Men's Hats ($75-$150. HATS. BY. BUN.)
The offerings range from $75 to $150 and he will make anything in any color that is “practical.” Two considerations are the seasons (“I work under the rhythm of the weather”) and embellishments (“I don’t decorate. I sew my shapes and designs INTO my work”). Honestly, Bunn might be a Diva, but he’s one friendly Diva with the workmanship to back up his attitude. He’s really a total hoot.

Whoops! I’m out of space! I can’t even tell you what happened when I visited my old pal Monty up at her latest digs! I’ll tell you all about it in my next posting, I promise!