Tucked away in a far corner of Brooklyn, Red Hook is known as the remote little neighborhood by the sea, home to the food-centric wonderland of Fairway, amazing key lime pies, and Ikea, the holy grail of affordable home shopping. My knowledge of the area is somewhat limited to pupusas and the Swedish Embassy (ahem, Ikea), but the little stores I could see from the B61 bus windows piqued my interest enough for me to devote a day to lovely Red Hook. A day that didn't include flat-packed furniture and me repeatedly asking myself "What would Jonathan Adler do?" while staring at vases.
The main shopping drag is just a few blocks on Van Brunt Street between Coffey and Wolcott Streets. It's best to go on weekends--many stores only open during the later half of the week. But when you arrive, this little shopping district packs enough personality and inventory to keep you occupied for a couple of hours.
One of the most unique shops is Metal and Thread, run by Derek Dominy and Denise Carbonell. "We wanted a better quality of life than what we had on the Lower East Side for the previous 15 years," says Carbonell. The couple set off to Red Hook where they opened their store, focusing on quirky handmade items and antiques that could be straight out of a William Faulkner story.
A vintage Georgio Armani suit was the source for Carbonell’s current favorite item--a black on black textile perfect for a quiet wall in your apartment. Other favorites include clever double-sided antique buttons, a lamp made out of a blowfish and intricate stainless steel mesh jewelry that are designed and made by the owners themselves, much like the shelving systems and displays. Purchases come in a handmade bag of vintage fabric, complete with a coupon for your next visit.
Just down the block is Red Lipstick (Van Brunt and Dikeman), a shop that moved from its location in Prospect Heights last year to bigger and better digs in Red Hook. Run by the coolest woman to ever pick up knitting needles, Staceyjoy Elkin, this shop features clothing and accessories that look like something your cool aunt would bring you back from the big city if you didn't already live in the big city.
Elkin likes to "find the items that no one else has," and she has succeeded with flying nail polish colors. She carries Priti, a completely vegan nail polish line free of formaldehyde, DBP, toluene, and camphor. She also introduced "mathematically insane" jewelry by Nervous System, a brand created by two MIT grads who write computer programs to mimic processes and patterns found in nature which are then used to create intricate and organic-looking jewelry. And the next time you're looking for perfume that travels well, check out the glass case full of beautifully packaged tiny perfumes.
Another shop not to be missed is the Everbrite Mercantile Company (Van Brunt and Wolcott Street), a cheeky store with items like kosher Star of David soap, necklaces that double as a map of the world by Design Glut of Brooklyn (two Pratt grads), and for store entertainment purposes only, an arcade bowling game carted back all the way from Cleveland. Owner Mollie Dash says that “Red Hook is just eccentric enough for us, and the neighborhood has welcomed us warmly.”
The established Erie Basin shop is also on Van Brunt at Dikeman Street and never fails to amaze with its collection of 18th to 20th century jewelry and other objects of interest. I’m more of an enthusiast than an expert in fine antique jewelry, but I do believe if you’re in the market for some beautiful and unique pieces, including engagement rings, there is no better place to visit in Brooklyn than Erie Basin.
To get a real feel for the neighborhood, visit Tiburon (Van Brunt between Coffey and Dikeman Streets), a fun and playful boutique manned by owner Anne O’Neil. When I met O’Neil, she was listening to a history lecture on tape, building a new clothing rack in the middle of the store, and wearing the coolest vintage jeans I've ever desired to steal. If that’s not enough, the Pac-Man print wrap skirt, the framed ghost tally (the ghost believers were winning), and a velvet painting of bunnies will cement your love affair with Tiburon.
Named after a bodega that used to be across the street, the creative free-for-all that is Tiburon functions as a sort of Red Hook souvenir shop stocking the wares of local artists and designers. There are lots of vintage items and original designs by self-confessed "mad Star Wars nerd" O’Neil, who likes making airy summer dresses "and then whatever my brain comes up with." She explains that the neighborhood has both up and downsides: "Sometimes I just want to be on 5th avenue or Smith Street or Bedford just for a few hours a week so we can make rent. But Red Hook is very supportive, I have a lot of neighborhood customers, and knowing my customers well, I know what they like, what size they are, and what to find for them."
Foxy & Winston is another charming shop along Van Brunt Street (at Dikeman Street) perfect for gift shopping, if you can manage to give away what you buy. Owner Jane Buck is the mind and hand behind the Foxy & Winston line of paper and cloth goods. "My illustrations are usually considered to be sweet but not saccharin," says Buck. "I try to inject a little quirk into each one." Like most of the stores in this area of Red Hook, Buck's is populated by items that are personal favorites, and products made by creative friends from down the block like Perch! Design’s ceramics.
Buck is currently working on her own fabrics and an animal themed alphabet--she mentioned "for the letter A there is an Anteater with a pattern of ants running all over his body." It's also rumored that she may launch a Letterpress Bridal collection soon.
Buck was already familiar with Red Hook when she opened in 2009--she worked out of a studio nearby. Her reasons for staying are varied: "The sunsets, the light quality, hearing the blast of the Queen Mary's horn, the neighborly neighbors, I could go on," she says, explaining the allure. You might go to Red Hook for the food opportunities (did I mention Baked is also on Van Brunt Street?) but you’ll stick around for all of the above, and of course, the good shopping.
Lauren Soroken is your friendly neighborhood shop girl. She lives in Prospect Heights with a very large collection of vintage accessories.