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A Shopping Stroll Through New York's West Village

How to enjoy Manhattan's most charming "village" like one of the actual villagers

There are few neighbourhoods more lovely than the West Village. It’s a picturesque place for a walk, with small winding cobblestone streets, lined with cascading trees, pastel-coloured vespas, historic townhouses and ivy-covered brownstones (some of which were originally built as stables). One late local resident, the American-Canadian urbanist Jane Jacobs, described it as the perfect example of the sort of city environment she advocated, filled with community-oriented businesses and street-level activity.

Rosemary Wettenhall has lived in the Village for more than 25 years, and is the owner of the delightfully eclectic and elegant vintage boutique Madame Matovu. This is how she describes its charms: “The streets are beautiful, narrow, and full of life. Sometimes they’re only one block long, so somehow you have to be peaceful and not rush.” She continues, “The West Village is a real neighbourhood. It’s changed over the years – many residents and shops have been pushed out. But I don’t think that it will ever lose its charm, because it’s a tight community, a small village. Everybody knows everybody and there’s a feeling of freedom and not being judged.”

The West Village might look like a dreamy New York film set, in part because it actually plays one on TV, from Carrie’s apartment on Sex and the City (66 Perry St.) to her favourite cupcake shop Magnolia Bakery and the Friends’ building (90 Bedford St.). But despite the media buzz and gentrification – which have brought billionaire residents, chain stores, tour buses and moneyed private clubs to this little village – the area remains one of Manhattan’s most neighbourly neighbourhoods. Shopkeepers will greet you with a smile and locals are likely to strike up a conversation.

Alexander Thompson / NYC & Company

Magnolia Bakery

Here’s what to see and where to shop while you’re playing the part of a Villager for the day.

First, a Little Geography

Stretching upwards from Houston Street to West 14th Street and westwards from Sixth Avenue to the Hudson River, the West Village borders NYU’s collegiate Greenwich Village to the east, well-heeled Tribeca to the South, and gallery-central Chelsea to the North. Whether the West Village includes the Meatpacking District and the beginning of the High Line is up for debate.

Now, a Little History

Adding to the Village’s undeniable personality is its bohemian past as a revolutionary enclave for both the arts and diversity. The area was home to legendary musicians, writers, artists, and political activists, including Bob Dylan, Edith Wharton, Jackson Pollock, Henry James, E.E. Cummings, Djuna Barnes, and Jack Kerouac. Dylan Thomas drank himself to death at the White Horse Tavern (1880). Bob Dylan wrote Blowin in the Wind at the Fat Black Pussycat café (now a Mexican hangout frequented by New York University undergrads). Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay established the Cherry Lane Theater (1924), still New York’s oldest operating off-Broadway theatre.

And jazz greats Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis performed regularly at the Village Vanguard and Charlie Parker reinvented the form itself at Arthur’s Tavern.

It was this atmosphere of artistic and non-conformist creativity in the early 20th century that also gave rise to the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn became the site of the 1969 riots where gay patrons famously fought back against a police raid. The bar, which is still in business, was recently designated as the first U.S. national monument to LGBT rights.

Christopher Postlewaite / NYC & Company

Stonewall Inn

At Last, Prepare Your Plastic

Small and unique shops with unusual finds and one-off pieces remain a quintessential part of West Village culture. The threat of chain stores to the neighbourhood’s character seems to be dwindling with the recent closure of Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren outlets; Marc Jacobs is reported to be moving to Soho and Michael Kors is re-branding into a concept store. The most fashionable streets for browsing are Bleecker Street between 10th Street and 8th Avenue, Hudson Street, and Greenwich Avenue.

Rosemary Wettenhall’s Madame Matovu is a classic West Village shop. It’s small but big on personality, a delightful and eclectic treasure trove of vintage fashion and home décor. The elegant collection comes from flea markets from all over the globe, with particular attention to France and Italy. In fact, the owner (who is originally from Uganda) named her store after a glamorous model on an Air France in-flight magazine.

Wettenhall has a penchant for mixing over-the-top couture with simple white T-shirts. “You have to play with the trends and mix it up, like new Chanel with H&M and a vintage bag,” she explains. “Fashion is a mix of personal style, lifestyle and taste. You can buy an expensive Chanel dress, but might have no taste or style at all. If you’re mixing it up, you show some personality.”

Courtesy Monica Meehan

Rosemary Wettenhall

“My clients come from everywhere for things that are beautiful and different,” Wettenhall says. “I also really get to know my customers, many become friends. The chains on Bleecker Street are closing because visitors aren’t looking for something they can find in a mall.”

You’ll find everything in her shop from ornate costume jewellery for $20 to the most coveted and pricey designer labels. There are Yves Saint Laurent pumps, Chanel bags, Prada scarves, antique lace dresses, bright and beautiful boas, fabulous furs, and endless piles of accessories. A "secret" cabinet holds delicate pieces like beaded clutches and special VIP items like a $14,000 handbag (all prices in U.S. dollars). Her own personal favourites include a 1970s Yves Saint Laurent black-tie tuxedo suit and a vibrant large-print Christian Lacroix silk skirt. At Madame Matovu, the temptation to play adult dress-up may prove hard to resist.

One of Wettenhall’s preferred places to shop is her modern and minimalist neighbour, CAP Beauty. The shop’s all-natural, clean beauty approach has gained a cult following that includes Helena Christensen and Brooke Shields. The welcoming owners (former co-workers at Martha Stewart Living) curate a mix of popular and indie brands, from luxe botanical lines to simple natural cures. Rose quartz, reputed amongst believers for healing powers, is secretly embedded under the oak floors.

It’s apparent that the Village freely mixes the old with the new. After more than 33 years in the West Village, the small and elegant bookstore Three Lives & Company remains a community cornerstone for the locals, including devoted luminaries Zadie Smith, Patti Smith and the late Oliver Sacks. According to Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham, it’s “one of the greatest bookstores on the face of the Earth.” Under a bright red awning, the shop’s brick-framed window displays a colourful cacophony of outward facing new titles. Inside, there are worn oriental rugs, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and the warm lighting of library lamps. The staff always seem more than happy to lend their two cents about the well-curated collection. And now is the time to visit, because the building just went up for sale.

Meanwhile, Danish designer, former model and popular fashion blogger Anine Bing recently opened her first New York City shop in the West Village. Designed like a white and gold jewel box, the new store sells her women’s collection (from $49 ribbed tanks to $999 leather pants). The aesthetic aims at effortless cool with a rock-bohemian twist. Anine, afterall, is also the lead singer for the band Kill Your Darlings.  

Courtesy Anine Bing

Fashion by Kill Your Darlings vocalist Anine Bing

For retail therapy catering to customers of the male persuasion, Vintage Thrift West carries both men’s and women’s clothing, from Versace neckties to Fendi leather handbags and vintage Nick Cave concert tees (all proceeds go to the United Jewish Council). And when it comes to mind-blowing decadence, a Jamaican-Canadian twin brother duo are the creative minds behind Want Les Essentiels’ stylish unisex utilitarian day-to-day and travel bags. The stunning flagship townhouse carries “man bags” with price tags under $1,000 (admittedly outrageous, but still more affordable than Hermès). Or simply settle in for a drink at the in-store bar and daydream about living in the West Village (like the rest of us).

Want Les Essentiels

Edible Souvenirs

When it comes to other landmark specialty shops, food lovers head to Murray's Cheese, a veritable emporium for all varieties of international artisan cheeses. The next mandatory stop is its Old World neighbour, Faiccos, a century-old Italian deli that continues to selllegendary fresh mozzarella and cured meats. Savvy shoppers of all ilks also stop here to fuel their treasure hunting with epic chicken parm sandwiches and made-from-scratch arancini (Sicilian rice balls).

Will Steacy / NYC & Company

Faicco's Pork Shop

How to get to there:

The A, B, C, D, E, F and M trains stop at the West Fourth Street-Washington Square station. The 1 train stops at Christopher Street-Sheridan Square and at West Houston and Varick Streets.

Published Monday, September 26th 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy Will Steacy / NYC & Company

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