Holly Greenwald, co-owner of Showroom 64
Accent on the British
Real old English service that Americans seem to love
By Pamela Ryckman
Rock star parents squeal over black onesies emblazoned with For those about to nap, we salute you and booties featuring the Union Jack. Traditional mothers coo over pink tees that say My Mummy Is A Yummy Mummy, but relent when fathers vie for shirts with the slogans Lock Up Your Daughters and I Dont Do Greens. Adults and children alike can wear shirts that say Shmoozer or Mensch, while fashionistas buy into word play with best-sellers You had me at Shalom and Nobody puts Bubbeleh in the corner.
Showroom 64, home to this unlikely combination of British and Yiddish, is the latest shop to hit what some British expatriates are calling Little England, an area that includes Greenwich Ave. and the Meat Market. Co-owner Holly Greenwald, 32, moved to Manhattan from England ten years ago and worked at the investment bank Goldman Sachs before opening the Manhattan branch of Showroom 64, the London-based childrens clothing business founded by her sister Emma Norden in 2001. The store joins fellow British institutions such as the exclusive Soho House, Alexander McQueen, Lulu Guinness, and Stella McCartney boutiques, and Tea & Sympathy, the tearoom at the heart of New Yorks English and Anglophile community.
While Showroom 64s offbeat inventory is up-to-the-minute, the two sisters old-fashioned service model is consistent with other Brits on the block, many of whom have come to America to capitalize on the country they left behind. The English come to New York for a piece of the American dream, seeking a more commercial, less classicist society. Crossing the Atlantic allows them to preserve cherished elements of their own culture and to earn a good living doing it. And while the Brits flock to New York to make money, New Yorkers spend their hard-earned cash pretending they live in an atavistic, leisurely Europe.
We provide real old English service that Americans seem to love, said Greenwald, whose customers include many of the West Villages most famous celebrities.
When a 20-something single American male walked in looking confused, Greenwald snaps up her pen and paper to jot the name, age, and sex of each child hes shopping for. She asks about each childs personality, then recommends appropriate items from her collection. Is this too edgy? Perhaps her mother would prefer something safer, she says, and leads him to a t-shirt with the letters HRH i.e., Her Royal Highness. Showroom 64 wraps each purchase in a signature platinum gift box with lavender ribbon.
American people have been so much more receptive and supportive because its a culture built on entrepreneurialism, said Greenwald, who despite being seven months pregnant continues to wear four-inch Manolo Blahniks. This sentiment is echoed by Nicky Perry, the reigning queen of Downtowns British colony who found retail space for Greenwald next door to Tea & Sympathy, Perrys tearoom since 1990, Carry On Tea & Sympathy, her English specialty food store, and A Salt and Battery, her fish and chips restaurant. Americans are not jealous. Theyre entrepreneurial, said Perry. Americans are very into success and theyre very supportive if you have a good idea. They really rally around you.
Perry admits that her shop is more traditionally British than one can easily find in England these days, where tearooms have been traded for Starbucks. Tea & Sympathy remains faithful to British traditions, serving treacle pudding and loose tea in teapots and baking china blackbirds into homemade pies according to the English nursery rhyme. The 24-seat tearoom is an anachronism for wistful Brits in New York and an antiquated, idealized notion of British culture for Americans hungry for old-world charm.
Amy Stoller, a dialect coach and loyal Tea & Sympathy regular who identifies herself as a lifelong raging, incurable Anglophile, shares with Perry a love of the British television show East Enders and appreciates the sense of community shes found at the tearoom. Because its such a small restaurant, its easy to talk to your neighbor. You can have all sorts of interesting conversations or you can just sit there and read, she said. Alexandra Lynch, a long-term customer who comes down from the Upper East Side for Yorkshire Gold Tea, called Tea & Sympathy very charming and quaint and said of Perrys staff, I love the way people really pay attention. Theyre very warm.
Both Perry and Greenwald have cozy relationships with their staffs and with the surrounding community. Despite her Union Jack sweatshirt and thick accent, Perry claims to be much more American than English in her boldness, her lack of formality, and her amiability. America has drawn it out of me, given me confidence, said Perry. Once, when a long-term, wealthy customer was rude to one of her employees, Perry snatched away the phone and told the woman she would never again sell to her. Its not about the money! Perry huffed. I just cannot bear disrespect. Greenwald in turn offers a glass of wine to valued customers and insists that she will not make any of her salespeople do anything she wouldnt do herself. Both Perry and Greenwald donate money and goods to local groups including Greenwich House Preschool, St. Vincents Hospital and the LGBT Community Center.
Peter Myers, owner of British grocery store Myers of Keswick on Hudson St., knows the old world better than either Perry or Greenwald and has been trading on its principles and on his countrymens longing for the past two decades. We get the works in here, from pop stars to paupers, from bankers to buffoons, he said craftily, while snacking on late afternoon tea and shortbread biscuits. He too delivers the same personalized service, regardless of a patrons status.
Myers attributes the neighborhoods onslaught of all things English with his charm, good looks, and personality, but when pressed will acknowledge that perhaps Brits and Anglophiles long for the tastes of home. Myers cures homesickness with Scotch eggs, Cumberland sausage and shepherds pie and, like Perry, carries traditional English products that are now hard to find even in the U.K. He laments the phasing out of tearooms and other English traditions in his homeland. Some people would call it progress. I wouldnt, said Myers, sounding almost like other West Village shop owners who closed their stores in recent months because of higher rents. Myers said his business has improved every year, even with recessions and increased difficulty importing goods.
The trend now seems to be turning back to more localized products, to small, independent producers and suppliers. A store like this works in New York, but not elsewhere, said Myers. However, its the inverse across the pond, where Americas otherness continues to hold some allure. If I were an American, I would be in England opening a hamburger restaurant, said Perry.