I don’t know who needs to hear this —maybe it’s just me— but Target is not the end-all be-all of stores, especially if you’re in New York City. NYC has over 200,000 small businesses fighting the good fight in this chain-store gentrification era the city’s currently in, but you’re missing out on seeing the unique things they have to offer because you’re in aisle C2 every weekend comparing a Heath & Hand vase to one from Studio McGee. If you’re ready to get out of the big-box stores and see something original, keep reading. These small businesses below are some of the most unique stores in NYC.
191 Malcolm X Blvd, New York, NY 10026
Katrina Parris has a long history of providing Harlem with things missing from the community (her first business was a flower shop so Harlem residents didn’t have to go all the way downtown to get a bouquet of roses). According to this Thrillist article, Parris noticed that there was a “gift desert” in the community, as well as a “lack of a platform for local makers.” So in 2015, she opened NiLu Gift Boutique, where you can get specially curated art, home decor, and just all-round dope ish made by local and black and brown creators. You’ll feel the love for the neighborhood and black culture from the moment you step in the door, and everything in this shop is so eye-catching and clever that you’ll be tempted to buy it all.
55 E 52nd St, New York, NY 10055
Some bookstores devote their entire inventory to one genre (see: The Mysterious Bookshop), but Chartwell Booksellers takes it one step further by dedicating their whole shop to one person: Winston Churchill. As you may guess, this is the only bookstore of its kind in the entire world, and it has everything fans of the famed British prime minister could imagine, from books written by Churchill to books written about him to his actual personal documents. While you’re in the building, —heads up: Chartwell Booksellers is tucked away in the lobby of the Park Avenue Plaza Building— be sure to browse through the hallway of Churchill portraits around the corner from the bookshop.
58 Warren St, New York, NY 10007
If you grew up loving shows like Castle, Veronica Mars, or Bones, or you spend your weekends binging true crime docs, you’ll feel right at home in this Tribeca bookstore. Not only is the Mysterious Bookshop the oldest mystery bookstore in the U.S., it’s probably the best stocked one, with the entirety of the store’s walls covered in floor-to-ceiling shelves of mystery novels. It’s easy to tell that the owner Otto Penzler has the utmost respect for the genre. As he said about mystery books in this Atlas Obscura article, “It’s not just puzzles, it’s not just telling a nice story. This is every bit as serious as Fitzgerald and Hemingway and the other great 20th-century writers.” Good to know that at the Mysterious Bookshop, you’ll find a community of mystery lovers just as passionate about (solving) murder and mayhem as you are.
415 Court St, Brooklyn, NY 11231
With its blue, white, and pink facade, it’s impossible to miss Mexico in My Pocket, which stands out among the usual red brick buildings and brownstones of Carroll Gardens. It’s just as impossible not to be drawn inside in the store, where you’ll be transfixed by all the beautiful handcrafted art and home goods made by Mexican artisans. It’s a small store but be prepared to stay awhile because you’re going to want to look at everything: the handblown glassware, the embroidered tote bags, the floral candles, all of it! Mexico in My Pocket even creates custom itineraries so you can see the beauty of Mexican culture for yourself.
22 8th Ave, New York, NY 10014
Casa Magazines isn’t a sleek, artfully designed modern store, which is unironic given that it sells magazines, the endangered species of the print world. But its antiquatedness is what makes it so striking. That, and how every inch of this West Village shop is covered with magazines, from the racks on the walls to the stacks along the floor. You may be wondering how a magazine store is still in business in this day and age. From what I can tell, it has something to do with having a loyal fanbase and a sizable social media presence (Casa Magazines has over 42,000 followers on Instagram and, yeah, they post mainly photos).
44 Mulberry St, New York, NY 10013
Yu and Me Books is the kind of bookstore that owner Lucy Yu wanted as a kid and is the kind of bookstore that was sorely needed in New York City —one with stories by and about immigrants and people of color. This tiny but well-stocked bookstore in Chinatown has only been open since December 2021 but it already is a community hub, hosting events with authors, poetry nights, and a book club. (Side note: can I mention how seen I felt when I saw that there was a Caribbean cookbook in the food section? That’s hard to come by in most bookstores. You and Me Books really is trying to help fill the void of representation and it is so appreciated.)
3102 Villa Ave, The Bronx, NY 10468
As they frequently say in their Instagram posts, get ready to “take your taste buds on a world tour.” Started in 2019 by friends Rafael Lullanda and Will Alsaidi, NYC Exotic Snax brings foreign, limited, and rare snacks to adventurous foodies and people who are missing unique snacks from back home. Try treats like cherry blossom and lemon-flavored Oreos or cheesy enchiladas Doritos. (Note: I’d recommend calling before visiting their Lower East Side location because when I went there, it wasn’t open even though Google said it would be.)
127 Lincoln Ave, The Bronx, NY 10454
This Mott Haven shop is like a shrine to the Bronx. Every surface is covered with work by Bronx artists, photos of Bronx-born celebrities, and local cultural touchstones like cans of Cafe Bustelo coffee and Vienna sausages. This is the place to go if you want to deck yourself out in Bronx merch that was created by actual Bronxites.
What other unique stores in NYC would you add to this list? My experience with Queens and Staten Island stores is lacking, so tell me about some of the unique stores in those parts of NYC. I’d love to add them to this post.
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