Often times the grandiosity and spectacle that is often associated with New York is seen as slightly overwhelming by those who choose to visit there. This of course is evident in the towering skyscrapers and manic activity that populate the streets 24 hours a day. But it is perhaps most evident in the retail of the city. New York boasts some of the largest department stores (with the largest in the world, an 8 stories high Macy’s in Herald Square, being a prime example), shopping malls, and bombastic variations on familiar retail chains the U.S. has to offer. In the brief time I’ve been residing in New York, it is even somewhat peculiar for me to go into a Barnes and Noble or H&M in other cities that isn’t multiple stories high.
However, the population and size of New York also enables the city to allow the proliferation of a unique form of locally owned businesses: the one-item specialty shops that populate the Manhattan area. These are shops that specialize in selling one type of item and only one type of item. Some of the businesses, such as stores that specialize in socks, restaurants that only serve Mac N’ Cheese, and stores that only sell hats, are admittedly quirky but not something that is necessarily surprising to see. But to put it lightly…some of the other establishments are pretty weird. To illustrate just a taste of these oddities, let’s take a look at a few examples of some of the more unorthodox specialty shops in New York.
The first shop, Just Shades, is actually the one that prompted me to go down this rabbit hole of specialty shops in the first place. Just Shades has been open for several decades in the Village in New York (and, incidentally, you will learn the majority of the quirkiest specialty shops seem to populate the Village area). Just Shades got its name pretty honestly: they sell lampshades. And that is it. No lamps. No light bulbs. Lamp shades only. I first became aware of this shop because of a classic segment on The David Letterman Show where he visited the shop and interviewed the shop owner.
After watching this classic bit from Letterman’s golden years, I was compelled to track down the location myself. And lo’ and behold, it is still in existence:
One of the qualities that seems consistent with a lot of these one item shops is the fact that they all feel somewhat like a scaled-down warehouse. The establishment also has stayed true to their roots: they still only sell lampshades, in various shapes and sizes.
I asked the woman working behind the counter how business was going. She stated that it remained steady, which was what I wanted to hear. Though specialty shops abound in New York, there are several that have closed over the years due to poor business and it’s pleasant to hear this isn’t another casualty to that trend. It should also be noted that during the editing process of this post I allowed a close friend of mine to read this to acquire her feedback. Upon learning that the business at Just Shades was doing well, she exclaimed “I am surprised a lampshade business would have….”bright” future”. I now want to throw very large things at her.
When I asked what kind of clientele frequented the store, she said it was a lot of people who had a worn or damaged lampshade and needed a replacement, artists in the Village who liked decorating lampshades and wanted a blank canvas, and collectors. Yes, that’s right, there are lampshade collectors. So if you think your collection of 90’s Troll dolls is niche, go back to the drawing board rookie.
Our second spot on this specialty shop tour takes us to another quirky spot in the Village, Casey’s Rubber Stamps.
One thing that I was asked when I mentioned my idea for this post repeatedly was “are the people who run these shops…unconventional?” Well, yeah. If you are specializing in such a unique market, and this is literally ALL YOU TALK ABOUT AND BREATHE FOR 8 HOURS A DAY, you’re probably going to be a little odd. However, the employees at each of these locations were very enthusiastic and friendly; Casey’s was the only business that seemed to be run by individuals who skewed younger and were in fact closer to my age. I think this was largely due to the fact that this store is not too far from St. Mark’s Place, a particularly hip and artsy street of the Village that skews to a younger crowd. The artistic leanings of this particular specialty shop remain in line with the sentiments of the individuals who would populate this area. They have an immense collection of various rubber stamps for sale, and are even capable of designing new ones.
Among the many types of rubber stamps available were things such as birds, zombies, astronauts, typewriters, and just about any other item one could imagine on a rubber stamp. The shop owner was a rather attractive younger woman with a somewhat hip bohemian style to her apparel, consistent with the look many residents in the area have adopted. She was very eager to share her knowledge on the products within the store, and seemed particularly fond of the skulls, the zombies, and any other stamps that would be purchased by Tim Burton if he were to waltz into this location. I made sure to tell the shop owner before I left “this store certainly has my STAMP of approval!”. We both then laughed and laughed before I ran out the door and threw myself into oncoming traffic.
The eccentric and specialized retail outlets don’t end with rubber stamps though. There are plenty of other stores that specialize in a fairly narrow focus throughout Manhattan. Rain or Shine in Midtown specializes in umbrellas…
There even was once a store in New York that only sold accordions. However, it shut down because apparently it’s hard to stay open when “Weird Al” Yankovic is your only customer. But I have chosen to save the best and most bizarre for last. I say that because of all the specialty shops I was able to visit in New York, none may have been more bizarre than Chartwell Booksellers.
I know you are looking at the image of this storefront and are likely trying to rationalize why a reasonably polished-looking bookstore would be considered so bizarre. Well, that is directly attributed to the type of books sold here. Chartwell advertises itself as “The World’s Only Winston Churchill Bookshop”. Most people hear this title and think “wow an entire section devoted to Winston Churchill! Neat!”. Well, not quite.
The images presented here are depicting Winston Churchill books available at Chartwell. And when I say this, understand what I am saying; ALL of these books are related to Winston Churchill. Not only does the store carry the 40+ works Churchill authored himself, but it plays host to a somewhat intimidating collection of biographies depicting just about every aspect of Churchill’s life. Many of these books are quite rare, and several of them are very early first printings. Some of the early printings sell for thousands of dollars, with the most expensive Churchill work, which is kept securely under lock in key, being worth well over $100,000. The shop owner also maintains a series of letters from Churchill that are for sale as well, though at quite a hefty price. The owner’s encyclopedic knowledge of Churchill was certainly obsessive and yet fascinating as well. He informed me that the popularity of Winston Churchill in America actually was greater than his rather considerable fame in England, a fact I was certainly unaware of. The shop has remained open for over 30 years and is still going steady, a remarkable feat in such a competitive market like New York. Chartwell even gets its share of celebrity customers; the shop owner informed me of all people, Spike Lee had come in that same day and has frequented the store on several occasions in the past. As weird and centralized as the focus of the store might be, it actually gave me a tremendous amount of respect for the owner. New York is notoriously known to be one of the harshest cities in which someone can maintain a decent living. This gentleman has taken a very unique and quirky hobby and put it into a business that has remained active for over 30 years in the city. That is a measure of resilience I think even Churchill would find admirable.
Commerce drives the heart of the Big Apple in many ways, and the nature of that commerce can come in many different forms. Sure it can present itself in the form of monstrously large chains skyrocketing the electric bill in Times Square. But these smaller businesses that primarily permeate the lower Manhattan area remain just as integral a part of New York’s makeup. While the larger stores certainly are providing the city with far more of its’ revenue, it is in unorthodox but charming businesses such as these that New York is able to present its identity.