Though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, AFAR is continuing to cover the world through our coverage, because while you may not be traveling right now, there’s always room for inspiration. Due to COVID-19, some of the following shops and galleries may be temporarily closed or have limited hours. Please check each shop’s website for the latest upates.
New York City’s Orchard Street has weathered the age-old neighborhood story: boom, bust, and boom again. In the 19th and early 20th century, Orchard Street was the most famous of the pushcart-clogged Lower East Side shopping streets. As part of a sanitation drive by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1930s, safe and clean indoor public markets were built around the city, and most of Orchard Street’s pushcart vendors relocated inside Essex Market.
The neighborhood’s brick-and-mortar shops remained but in the second half of the 20th century, drug-related crime, urban blight, and New York City’s failing economy led to some depressing local shopping options. In recent decades, though, artists and makers have moved into the old storefronts and opened shops, galleries, and boutiques; Orchard Street has once again become a shopping (and eating and drinking) destination.
Orchard Street runs from East Houston Street at the north to Canal Street at its southern end. The northernmost blocks were—until only recently—crowded with wholesalers of leather jackets, luggage, plastic jewelry, and, well, cheap merch. You’ll still find jackets for sale and a couple of luggage stores, but most of the old retail shops have been replaced by bars and restaurants. (A branch of Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya and the extraordinary pizza at Una Pizza Napoletana are standouts—definitely worth coming back for when you’re hungry.)
Cross Stanton Street to see some vestiges of the old Orchard Street: Several tailors and one last fabric store hold on to their storefronts in an area that used to be a garment district. Small clothing stores have taken the place of the fabric and notion shops, like Self Edge (a men’s shop with a focus on fancy Japanese selvedge denim clothing) and Askan (where you can pick up a jean jacket hand-painted with the visage of Sade, as well as a variety of cool artist-made T-shirts and hoodies).
The real old-school holdout in these parts is Orchard Corset. Don’t expect frills or a beautifully laid-out lingerie boutique: The walls of the shop are lined with shelves packed with stacks of cardboard boxes. The owners, an Orthodox Jewish couple (the store is closed on Saturday for the Sabbath), are unexcitable and expert. They will listen to what you want in bra, garters, shapewear, or corset, but be prepared for a calm disagreement about the size you actually need. Trust them. With a mere glance, they can tell what size you are. Your fellow customers, seeking the efficient and amazingly accurate help the shop is known for, will include older Orthodox Jewish ladies, trans women, performers, and brides. Be prepared to enjoy some real New York attitude—not rude, but matter of fact and nonjudgmental—and walk out, well, uplifted.
Further south down Orchard, more of the storefronts are occupied by art galleries—some of which are pop-up gallery spaces that you’ll never find again, but others have been operating in the area since commercial rents in the East Village got too high.
The block of Orchard Street between Rivington and Delancey has a few notable LES venues. Back in 2015, Russ & Daughters, a beloved deli doing business up on East Houston Street since 1920, opened a sit-down café here. Yes, there will always be a line. And yes, it is worth the wait. (Tip: Order the classic deli board with a bialy.) Right across the street, Max Fish Bar maintains an air of hardcore art-bar cool, even though it’s been in the neighborhood since 1989, long before the current wave of gentrification.
Look up when you’re standing in front of Max Fish for a glimpse of the old Lower East Side shopping experience—this building, now devoted to condos upstairs and the Perrotin Gallery on the ground floor, still proudly and loudly bears the colorful signage of its past incarnation as S. Beckenstein’s, an upholstery fabric store that started from a pushcart and managed to lure the fanciest interior designers down to the neighborhood for its cut-rate prices for decades until it moved uptown in 2003.
Delancey Street bisects both Orchard Street and the Lower East Side. Below Delancey, you’ll see more Chinese businesses—printers, funeral homes, import companies, light industry—edging up Orchard Street from Chinatown at its south end. The mix makes this segment of the street even more interesting. There’s a little thrill of discovery when you come upon the colorful window of a gallery or design shop exactly where you don’t expect one.
At the corner of Delancey and Orchard, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum Shop is a hive of activity. You want New York–specific gifts? They’ve got ’em. Maybe you’re in the market for a book of useful everyday Yiddish phrases, or a table lamp with a photo of the Brooklyn Bridge printed on its shade, or a jigsaw puzzle of the subway map, or a scholarly read about the Ash Can School art movement of the early 20th century. This bright, well-organized shop carries all things NYC at a variety of price points. You’ll find shelves and shelves of books, spinner racks of postcards, trays of jewelry and accessories made by local artists, stationery, toys, socks. The corner shop is also where the museum’s docent-led walking tours of the neighborhood convene, so if you’re moved by the neighborhood history and culture on display, you can buy a ticket and explore the surrounding blocks with an expert.
Many of the buildings on this block are actually part of the Tenement Museum and can be visited with admission to the museum—if you’re an American, chances are pretty good that your forebearers entered the country through New York, and even if they didn’t, the immigration stories told here are fascinating.
Step into the Storefront Project gallery, a collective of artists whose work is often influenced by modern celebrity culture and advertising, as well as pop art. Then, pick up a silver skull ring, black bandana, or other biker accoutrements at the Great Frog, a London transplant.
Pilgrim New York, a boutique nearby, stocks an enticing inventory of vintage finds, including swoony Chanel handbags and 1970s Givenchy chokers, and women’s clothing designed by the likes of Issey Miyake, Ann Demeulemeester, and Helmut Lang, at surprising prices (not cheap, but less than you’d guess).
Down on the corner, Zarin Fabrics, three massive floors stocked with upholstery fabric and supplies, is another holdover from the old days (though it’s doubtful that the pushcarts ever carried Scalamandre prints). The business got a pop-culture boost a few years ago when a member of the Zarin family appeared as one of The Real Housewives of New York.
At the end of the block, Chop Suey Club is a part gallery–part shop that features the artwork and designs of Chinese and Chinese American creatives. The engaging shop, filled with light and vivid colors, carries a variety of housewares, clothing, jewelry, books, lingerie, eyewear, and art.
Another bright and zingy shop awaits right across Hester Street. Coming Soon is a fun resource for housewares and gifts with a ’70s flair. The design-minded store sells objects as big as room-size rugs or an olive wood credenza and as small as playing cards and incense.
Entering tiny CW Pencil Enterprise, a half-block above Canal Street on Orchard, feels a bit like entering a shop in Tokyo. The walls are lined with shelves upon shelves holding clear containers full of colorful pencils of all kinds. Like flower stems in a vase, pencils radiate from jars labeled with manufacturer, lead hardness, provenance: fat ones, colored ones, scented Portuguese pencils, vintage pencils, flat carpenter pencils, pencils with chalk instead of lead. The store carries other items, of course, tables stacked with stationery, pouches, notebooks, sharpeners, cases, but for anyone who remembers the days of back-to-school shopping with fondness, an in-person visit will bring it all back. Inhale deeply and smell that fresh paper and pencil scent. Want to stay sharp in between visits? You’re in luck: The store offers a quarterly Pencil Box subscription that delivers lots of nerdy goodness packed in a carton right to your door.
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Ann Shields In these quiet days leading up to her Powerball win, Ann works as a freelance travel editor and writer. A fan of literature, museums, history, high-minded cinema, and bad television, Ann lives in New York with her husband and two teenaged children. She likes road trips, local bars, getting lost, and laughing, so Ireland ranks high on her list of favorite places.