Shopping Local in Harlem
More and more national chain stores have set up shop in Harlem in the past decade—Banana Republic, MAC Cosmetics, Target, Whole Foods—but the locally owned specialty shops more than hold their own. Aside from the friendly, personalized service you can expect from these stores, they are prized for offering products that reflect both the neighborhood’s history and its continuing evolution. Below are a few favorites.
536 West 112th Street (between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway)
2915 Broadway (at West 114th Street)
Book Culture began as a store specializing in academic titles—appropriate enough given its location in Harlem’s Morningside Heights section, near Columbia University. It has since expanded to four shops—two in Morningside Heights, a third on the Upper West Side, and the fourth in Long Island City—selling best-sellers, remainders, and new books in all genres in addition to books from academic and independent publishers. The 112th Street store buys used books as well—a boon to Columbia students—while the Broadway shop includes a dedicated children’s room. In addition, the 112th Street hosts the Contemporary Poetry Book Club on the second Tuesday of each month and the Essays Book Club on the second Wednesday of very month.
24 East 125th Street (between Madison and Fifth Avenues)
Former makeup artist Princess Jenkins opened her boutique in 1998 to provide fashion-forward, statement-making apparel to an oft-neglected group: women sized 12 to 20. For the most part, these are not clothes for wallflowers: Think jewel-tone colors, flounces, pleats, and billowing fabrics. No matter your size, you are certain to be dazzled by the Brownstone’s assortment of bold necklaces, earrings, and rings.
2504 Frederick Douglass Boulevard (between West 133rd and West 134th Streets)
Owned by Heloise Annette Oton and her daughter, Atim Annette Oton, Calabar Imports specializes in handcrafted apparel, home decor, jewelry, and gifts from Africa, though items from Asia and South America make up a significant portion of the offering as well. (Calabar is the port city in Nigeria where Atim was born and grew up.) Among the treasures you can find in this modern-day bazaar are leather-trimmed woven baskets from Senegal, necklaces crafted in Kenya from disks of bright patterned fabric, kurtas from India, petite mbiras (also known as thumb pianos) from Burkina Faso, and cloth-framed mirrors from Ghana: in short, items you are unlikely to find anywhere else—except in Calabar Imports’ other shops, in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
273 West 121st Street (at Frederick Douglass Boulevard)
The “flame” that this shop aims to keep alive is one of elegance in word, deed, and of course, style. For owner Marc Williamson, men’s hats are an exemplar of such elegance. Here you will find felt fedoras and cotton trilbies, wool top hats and straw Panamas, tweed newsboy caps and Italian boater hats. Among the compact store’s impeccable shelves of headwear you can also find accessories such as leather-trimmed gym bags that are a collaboration between FlameKeepers and artist/designer PELNYC.
84 West 120th Street (between Fifth Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard)
The “grandma” is former teacher Dawn Harris-Martine, and her “place” is a store selling children’s books and toys. The emphasis is on classic toys and games (Etch-a-Sketch, Slinky), though you can also buy currently in-demand items such as Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig toys. The wonderfully welcoming shop also sells a trove of toys that are educational without coming across as such (science kits, games that match words with pictures) and playthings that nurture creativity (puppets, finger paints). The books, like the dolls, cater to an ethnically diverse group; titles include “Natalie’s Hair Was Wild,” “My Name Is Yoon,” and “Mixed Me!”
245 Malcolm X Boulevard (between West 122nd and West 123rd Streets)
Harlem Haberdashery is the retail arm of 5001 Flavors, which has created bespoke apparel for scores of boldfaced names ranging from Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez to Kobe Bryant and Jay Z. Men and women can get fitted for custom clothing at this shop as well as buy ready-to-wear apparel and footwear that range from quietly casual to all-out spectacular. The shop itself is a feast for the eyes; ornately framed black-and-white photos of Harlem Renaissance notables are artfully arranged on the royal-blue walls, and antique furniture displays bottles from the new HH Bespoke Spirits collection of gin, vodka, and rum.
2538 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (at West 147th Street)
Hats for women, men, and children are the specialty of Harlem’s Heaven, founded by mlliner Evetta Petty. Fascinators suitable for a royal wedding, floppy-brimmed sun hats, leather applejack caps, and rhinestone-studded pillbox hats are just a few of the offerings, many of which Petty handcrafts herself. The boutique sells a smattering of new and vintage jewelry—and of course, hat pins—as well.
191 Malcolm X Boulevard (between West 119th and West 120th Streets)
Many of the gifts, artworks, and accessories for sale in NiLu are crafted by local artisans; nearly all of them reflect Harlem’s cultural heritage. Collage portraits by Makeba Rainey, scented candles from the 125 Collection, luxe soaps by Maison 276, and baby blankets from Dsenyo, a fair-trade company that works with artisans in Malawi and Brazil, are displayed alongside beaded purses, handsome poker sets, Harlem-centric pillows and books, sparkling jewelry, and vibrant totes.
1640 Park Avenue (at East 116th Street)
Beneath the Metro-North tracks might be the last place one would expect to see a store selling garden supplies and plants, but that is where you will find this open-air emporium, a local institution for decades. Year-round, rain or shine, the 20,000-square-foot garden center offers not just plants and pots, soil and spades, trowels and trellises, but also expertise on planning, installing, and maintaining all manner of urban gardens, from windowsill herb collections to building courtyards. And if your thumb is more black than green, you can at least walk out with a miniature ceramic pot that mimics the iconic Greek takeout coffee cup filled not with coffee but a petite, low-maintenance succulent.
Two West 125th Street (at Fifth Avenue)
Mud-cloth throw pillows, kente-cloth bags, and batik upholstery are seen more and more in upscale fashion and decor magazines, but Yara has been selling those and other African textiles since 1999. Mali-born owner Moctar Yara stocks his store with both traditional patterns and modern-day prints from African artisans. Curtains sewn from one of Yara’s handmade vegetable-dyed cotton in a subtle yet mesmerizing geometric pattern or pillows stitched from a variegated-stripe wax-print fabric are surefire ways to add global chic to any space.