Shopping for hidden treasures on the Upper East Side
By Amanda Woods and Megan Bungeroth
Chain stores, traditional gift shops and well-established brand stores are easy to come by on the Upper East Side, but we set out to find something different: quirky, unusual shops selling something new and different. The stores we discovered range from old-fashioned pharmacies to brand-new designer boutiques. There’s something for everyone in this list—and you’re unlikely to find other stores quite like these.
143 E. 62nd St., tenderbuttons-nyc.com
This shop specializes in the kinds of buttons you didn’t even know you wanted. Looking for ceramic Peter Rabbit buttons for your kid’s sweater? Sold. Eyeing a few Swarovski crystal- and gold-laden baubles to jazz up an old blazer? There are dozens to choose from. The walls are lined with buttons of every color, size, material and price, and the store caters to everyone from the casual one-button replacer to serious designers.
The store itself exists as much as a place to gain inspiration as a retail operation.
“Spending rainy afternoons in your midst, looking for the perfect buttons to bring out the elegance of a jacket, is one of my happiest memories of eight years spent in New York,” wrote Sumner Hargrove, a happy former customer, in an email to the staff as he reminisced from Paris.
Owner Millicent Safro is something of a button connoisseur and has attracted clients like Calvin Klein, Julia Roberts, Greta Garbo and Kermit the Frog (for his trenchcoat, of course). There are many antique and pricey items in stock, but Tender Buttons also sells classic men’s shirt sets and basic black buttons.
Then there are the coconut shell numbers painted with intricate yet modern floral designs in Italy and the Eskimo scrimshaw collection painted on fossilized walrus tusks. The next time you’re missing a button, rejoice in the fact that you can pick out a new one in a veritable button heaven tucked into an Upper East Side storefront.
1318 Madison Ave., buckhouse.com
Shop owner and curator Deborah Buck wants to make one thing clear: She’s a painter above all else.
“I like to say that everything here”—she indicated the eclectic mix of European- and American-designed furniture and art—“is an extension of my painting. This is painting in 3-D.”
Buck opened her shop 10 years ago after feeling stifled by the life of a painter and wanting to branch out. A consummate traveler, she began lugging interesting pieces back from trips abroad and fashioned a showroom that combines a funky, fun aesthetic (bright striped walls, a sculpture modeled after an anatomically correct human heart, a 19th-century gold eagle that once adorned an upstate country house) with more ornate pieces, like a glass serving cart from Rome and elegant ceramics and glassware.
“I never buy the same thing twice, ever,” Buck said. “Because that’s not fun for me.”
She calls the shop her travelogue, letting the pieces tell their own stories and arranging them to create new ones. Customers who fall into the comfort of the Danish armchair immediately notice the leather-covered handset phone next to it, and the French settee across from it that Buck reupholstered in patterned fabric she designed from parts of her paintings. She hopes to create a whole fabric line based on her art.
Buck describes her style as strong and edgy, with an exaggerated sense of color that she said attracts interior designers as well as people in the neighborhood just looking for a unique piece to put on their bookshelf. She’s always happy to help customers find that perfect addition.
“I look at things and see where they want to be,” she said.
247 E. 57th St., www.extraordinaryny.com
For those bored by the selection of decorations and knick-knacks at large department stores and online shopping chains, Extraordinary offers a reprieve.
“My goal is having items that you cannot find on Google,” said J.R. Sanders, 57, the store’s owner, an artist who has designed museum exhibits in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Tall hand-painted mirrors, an assortment of vases in different shapes and colors, beaded bracelets, animal-shaped paperweights and cork openers, small carousels and music boxes and greeting cards designed by local residents are only part of the inventory. No two items in the store are the same.
“That’s how I see the future,” Sanders said. “Everything is one-of-a-kind and it’s difficult to compete.”
The store sells the largest collection of serving trays in the city. Some have bright blocks of primary colors, while others were created of various types of wood covered in layers of lacquer. Another has a large gingko leaf in the center. Many of the trays were designed abroad, in Mexico, Vietnam and Peru.
One of Sanders’ favorite items in the store is a small Chinese-crafted porcelain pig, hand-painted with flowers and resting on a red pillow.
When locals pass by Extraordinary, they sometimes walk away because they think it’s too expensive, Sanders said. But he said he prices the items reasonably—from $15 for the smallest pieces to $150 for the larger decorations—and residents are surprised by the affordability.
Designers who visit the store are also impressed, added Chequita Jackson, who dates Sanders and works in the store.
“Every designer who comes in here says what a great eye he has,” Jackson said. “You never know what’s coming out of the box of treasures.”
J. Leon Lascoff & Sons Apothecary
1209 Lexington Ave., 212-288-9500
It’s rare to find an old-style pharmacy in New York City, but when customers step in to J. Leon Lascoff & Sons Apothecary, it’s like a time warp.
The store was the first licensed pharmacy in New York State, and its founder, J. Leon Lascoff, is known as “the father of modern pharmacy.” Founded in 1899, the pharmacy moved to its Upper East Side location in 1931—but it’s clear that the shop hasn’t left the past behind.
Original preparations and artifacts are on display in the store’s old wooden cabinets that surround the store on every wall. Some items include a lasco-lyptus candle, a urine collection bottle, senna pods, malva flowers, lavender root and false unicorn root. One cabinet has a small set of rusty drawers that hold pills, covered in stickers reading “do not use after” and “quinine.”
What looks like a shrine to the late Lascoff is displayed at the front of the store by the door. There is a photo of him holding leeches next to his book, The Second Copy of the Pharmaceutical Recipe Book No. II, along with other Lascoff memorabilia.
On the second level of the store, giant arched display windows are accentuated by large green, yellow and blue lights hanging next to them. The ceiling is beginning to peel, adding to the shop’s old-time feel.
A store employee said that some of the items in the store have very limited distribution, such as those in the glass cabinets, but other items stocked on the shelves, including bubble bath and spray shampoo, are still easy to find.
The store offers a glimpse into pharmacy’s past—without entirely ignoring the present.
18 E. 69th St., fivestoryny.com
The Upper East Side is the place for luxury shopping, but a new boutique, Fivestory, which had its grand opening on April 18, puts a twist on that idea.
“We really wanted to create a unique shopping experience for everyone,” said Kate Mester, the store’s press person. “Shoppers won’t come and see things that are in every retail store in Manhattan.”
The store’s founder, Claire Distenfeld, 26, used to work in art, but soon realized that shopping was her true love.
“When imagining what we wanted Fivestory to be, we used words like ‘maven,’ ‘connoisseurship,’ ‘curated,’ ‘au courant’ and, of course, ‘luxury,’” Distenfeld said in a press release about the store’s opening. “Fivestory is meant to be unique and exciting, like shopping at Fiorucci and Biba was in the ’60s and ’70s. We’re about uptown and downtown; up-and-coming and establishment; a democratic, fun and newly distinct attitude.”
The store doesn’t cater to online shoppers, and it features designers that can’t be found online, Mester added.
A white sleeveless dress, artistically covered in black lines that have a crayon- or colored pencil-scrawled look, is displayed by itself in a corner
of the store’s second floor. The dress is designed by Vika Gazinskaya, a Russian designer. Fivestory is the only store in New York that features her designs, according to Mester.
The store also features shoes by Aperlai and Del Toro and Olympia de Tan clutches made to look like the books La Femme Amoureuse and The Catcher in the Rye.
Interior designer Ryan Korban designed the store; the walls are covered in contemporary paintings, the floor is made of Italian black-and-white-grained marble and the doorways are draped in silk. Every piece of the store comes together to create something unique and luxurious.
“We’re not a Barney’s or Bergdorf’s,” Mester said. “That’s what we like about ourselves.”
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