Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Manhattan Interlude #5: City's quirky offerings can't be beat

The Strand sells more than books, such as these life-size Trump hands. As to why they come in black, a mystery.
    All good trips must come to an end. We had a blast in NYC, returning late Monday afternoon. I'm going to do a few New York Diaries about some of the (hopefully) more interesting angles of the visit. But rather than try to grind out the first one now, I've got one more chestnut to share, a late '90s shopping spree. A lot has changed since then.  Maxilla & Mandible went out of business in 2011; Balducci's closed their flagship in 2003. Asprey took a bath in their Trump Tower location: having spent $40 million to build their "dream flagship" in 2001, by 2006 they had to pay Trump $25 million to break their lease and flee. The Strand, thank God, is doing better than ever: their "Eight Miles of Books" is now "Eighteen Miles of Books" and the place was jammed when we visited Friday. Forbidden Planet is also still hopping, right next door. And the Firefighter's Friend store changed its name to NY Firestore and moved to 17 Greenwich Ave., and its web site is still up and running.

     NEW YORK—Try buying a human brain in a jar at your local Gap. Or a $75,000 pair of malachite champagne coolers at the corner jewelry store. Or raspberries infused with vodka at the neighborhood White Hen.
     While it is true that some of the excitement of shopping the Big Apple has cooled a bit now that Chicagoans can browse Saks Fifth Avenue or Bloomingdales or Barneys without ever leaving the 312 area code, not every emporium New York offers has found its way west, yet. The visitor to Manhattan should take time to seek out the unique and the extraordinary.
     "New York still has a good selection of weird shops," said Henry Galiano, owner of Maxilla & Mandible Ltd. (451 Columbus Ave.), an Upper West Side boutique offering a human brain in a jar ($495) and other curiosities of the natural world, from a Mars rock ($3,200) to coyote skulls ($75) and human finger bones ($6 apiece).
     The store, whose name means, roughly, "upper and lower jaw," is the brainchild of Galiano, who once worked across the street at the American Museum of Natural History. He opened Maxilla & Mandible 13 years ago and gets a lot of tourists who wander in on their way to the museum. (Most asked question: Where do the human remains come from? Answer: old medical collections and other legal sources).
     "They're usually floored, just by the selection—the strangeness," he said. "Most people never see these things, so they're stunned." 
     If your tastes run more to luxury than to the macabre, you might want to visit Asprey, the British jewelry store and home to swank gifts, located on the ground floor of Trump Tower (725 Fifth Ave.).
     OK, maybe the $115,000 18-karat yellow gold, mother of pearl, jade, sapphire, ruby, emerald and diamond "Tutti Frutti Clock" might blow the old vacation budget for the next century. But it doesn't cost anything to look—and your only other chance is in Beverly Hills or London.
     And if you have to buy something, there are a few lower-end items, such as the sterling silver dog bowls or the popular $65 leather desk signs—Asprey is famous for its leather department, with Trump-like sentiments such as "It CAN Be Done" designed to inspire the corporate titan in your life.
     People used to bring fresh bagels back from New York, back in the dark days when a good bagel was hard to find. Now, with a bagel shop on every corner of Chicago, finding unique New York foodstuffs can be tougher. Unless you go to Balducci's (424 6th Ave. between 9th and 10th), the Italian-accented specialty food store.
     Homemade pastas and breads (try the Napoleon olive bread or the focaccia), calzones, homemade sauces and pastries, fruits packed in liquors from Lombardy (at the holidays) make the Greenwich Village landmark worth a visit.
     "We have tourists who come in all the time, most of time looking for something with the Balducci's label," said Emily Balducci, granddaughter of the original owners. "Mamma Balducci's Balsamic Vinegar. T-shirts, aprons. Useful stuff."
     A brief stroll east is the Strand (828 Broadway), which boasts eight miles of books, both new and used, and across the street from that, Forbidden Planet (821 Broadway), a general comic book/robot/toy store, dwarfs the boutiques to be found in Chicago.
     If you're looking for a souvenir of your trip that is a cut above the typical Times Square bronzed Empire State Building thermometer, go to SoHo and stop by Firefighter's Friend, which offers an array of T-shirts, caps, toys, puzzles, patches and pins, all about fire-fighting. A genuine New York City firefighter's coat costs about $250; a helmet, about $200. But some items only cost a few dollars.
     Of course, the Internet is changing things. There is a Firefighter's Friend Web site if you want to cheat and just pretend you visited New York (www.nyfirestore.com).
     We won't tell.

         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 29, 1998


  1. So happy to hear Strand Bookstore is thriving. The "gone but not forgotten" list should also include White Hen Pantry, fully absorbed by 7-Eleven almost a decade ago now.

    1. Yeah, I remember spending hours at the Strand, poring over shelf after shelf, collecting maybe a dozen books for shipment back to Chicago.

      They seem to have a thriving online business, which is probably one reason they're still in business. Think I'll give them the first shot the next time I buy a book.

  2. So those bronzed Empire State Building thermometers were still around in the late Nineties? To me, that says "classic"...because I got mine on my first-ever visit to New York, back in 1962. At fifteen, I thought the coolest thing about them was the way they came in so many sizes.

    The souvenir shop on the Empire State's ground floor had all of them on display. They ranged from a few inches high to as tall as a foot. I bought a four-inch model, and I kept it for years, even after the thermometer broke. They could be dangerous. I once stabbed myself in the fleshy part of my palm with the TV mast. I've always been a klutz.

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  4. So much to do in New York. Of course, there's a hell of a lot of stuff to do right here, which somehow I never get around to doing, unless it's accompanying a visitor to Chicago. One thing I enjoyed most of all in New York was taking the Lower East Side Tenement Tour.


  5. When I visited New York regularly I looked forward to breakfast or lunch at the Carnegie Deli, now no more. Pastrami sandwiches with the meat piled so high you risked dislocating a jaw getting it in your mouth. French toast made from challah.Cheesecake. Flying home one time the plane's cabin was suffused with the smell of pastrami and there was Morey Amsterdam lugging a large paper bag labelled Carnegie Delicatessen.


  6. Ashkenaz on Morse was the place. Sadly, I watched it burn in he late 70s.

  7. Just curious Neil — what souvenir did you bring home to remember your wonderful trip?

    1. A beautiful little Japanese ruler, maybe six inches long, from a stationery shop. And a few extra pounds.


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