This Chelsea resident has serious street cred.
When Betsy Bober Polivy moved into Manhattan in 2009, after years in the Westchester suburbs raising her two kids, she was looking for a project. “I was always walking and exploring. And it hit me one day,” Polivy, a former children’s bookstore owner, told The Post. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to walk these streets and help these businesses in some small way — to get people off the avenues and onto the side streets?’”
Using the original Manhattan grid, the now 64-year-old started pounding the pavement in 2011 — walking from 1st to 155th streets, from the East River to the Hudson — up to 10 hours a day every day for six years, documenting the businesses on each side street on her award-winning blog, Manhattan Sideways.
“I have documented each and every shop, boutique, restaurant, bar, garden, hotel, gallery and so much more,” she said, estimating that she’s collected around 10,000 business cards. Her objective was to bring much-needed attention to the hidden gems that stud the city. “I speak from my heart — telling the stories that the owners share with me … in a positive, yet honest light.”
Her new book, “Walking Manhattan Sideways” (self-published, out now and available at Shakespeare & Co. and the Corner Bookstore), is the culmination of her project, which also became a podcast in 2018. The book features 175 under-the-radar businesses, such as lumber shops (Midtown Lumber); sweets shops with 100 varieties of European licorice (Myzel’s Chocolate); typewriter shops (Gramercy Typewriter Co.) and a 146-year-old knife-sharpening shop (Henry Westpfal Company, opened in 1874).
Polivy said she was particularly impressed with the city’s female business owners: “These women have stood the test of time — through hurricanes, illness, cancer, loss of a spouse.”
She knows a thing or two about grit. In 2017, she broke her foot — her doctor attributed the injury to overuse — which interfered with her daily explorations. Instead of kicking up her heels for a few months, she rallied her summer intern, Gabriella Sanchez, to help her crisscross the streets on crutches.
Now, Polivy is particularly invested in how Manhattan’s stores will make it through the pandemic. She’s spent the past few months retracing her steps to chart the tide of openings and closings. But with rising rents and major shifts in the way people shop — plus shifting COVID-19 measures — the picture hasn’t always been a sunny one.
“In my own small way, this is my attempt in trying to keep these special places alive a little longer,” she said, adding that the fortitude that carried proprietors through decades of adversity — including 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and Hurricane Sandy — will help them get through the coronavirus crisis, too.
Below, some of Polivy’s most magical finds that make up the funky fabric of our fabulous — and resilient — city.
Tiny Doll House
Leslie Edelman used to be a lawyer, but it just wasn’t as much fun as building dollhouses. After befriending a couple who owned a dollhouse store on the Upper East Side, he started helping them out by sweeping the floors and doing inventory. But in 1984, Edelman gave up his law practice to take over operations at Tiny Doll House. “He traveled all over the world and found incredible miniature items,” said Polivy.
Dollhouse collectors took notice. Edelman’s most famous customer was Joan Rivers, who once “flung open the door, threw her shoes to one corner and her fur coat to another, and the next thing we knew we were building a house for her,” Edelman told Polivy. She then “used it as a prop on QVC to promote her charm bracelets,” Polivy writes.
Edelman told Polivy that his business took a hit at the start of the pandemic, when people stayed home watching TV and playing video games. But lucky for him, those pastimes got old. This season, he said people started trickling back in, “Buying mini versions of comfort[ing] things, like favorite foods and cookies.”
314 E. 78th St.; 212-744-3719
Red Caboose Hobby Shop
“It’s the coolest place, an absolute mess and in total disarray,” said Polivy of this tiny Midtown hobby shop, noting that it’s impossible for two people to stand side by side. The store, founded in 1946, is known for its stock of rare, antique Lionel electric trains. But it’s owner, Allan Spitz — who shows up to work every day with his cat — and his encyclopedic knowledge of the craft that’s the real draw. “Growing up, Allan had a passion for warships,” writes Polivy, noting Spitz once worked at legendary hobby shop Polk’s.
His store is “a man cave — a little-boy heaven,” said the author. She bought her grandson his first model there. But surprisingly, Spitz told Polivy that his customers do tend to skew more mature: “My customers are old, older and oldest,” he said.
In December, Spitz told Polivy that the pandemic has certainly had an impact. “There’s much less business. In the past, I’ve never relied on the natives, but rather the tourists, and now we don’t have any. I’m still selling a few of this and that to people. I cut back my hours, but I will still be here on the other side,” he said.
23 W. 45th St. #B; 212-575-0155
Lou Lou Buttons
Owner Roz Farhadi moved to New York from Iran in 1978 to study mechanical engineering. But it was his passion for buttons that ultimately shaped his life.
Farhadi creates handmade buttons at a warehouse in Midtown — ranging in price from 50 cents for standard ones to $50,000 for luxury, jewel-encrusted versions — and sells them at his store two blocks away. For decades, he’s crafted and supplied his one-of-a-kind wares to the city’s crème de la crème, including the Metropolitan Opera House, Radio City Music Hall, Broadway, dance companies and top fashion designers.
Despite a downturn for most businesses in recent months, Lou Lou — named for a Persian poet who preached self-love — is thriving. “The future looks very good for us,” staffer Gary Rodriguez told Polivy, adding that city-wide boredom is actually fueling foot traffic. “People are sitting at home and going through their closets and want to give their clothes a new life and new purpose,” he said. “I have had many people come in with 15-to-20-year-old clothing — sentimental but not fresh anymore — put a new button on and it looks like new.”
71 W. 38th St.; 212-398-5498
A staple since 1979, owner Jason Sapan’s storefront is rather understated. “You’d never notice it on the street,” said Polivy, “But inside it’s absolutely magic.”
Sapan makes luminous holograms, which have interested him since he was a kid (his father worked in telecommunications, pioneering early phone display technology). “I had lasers in my house from the early 1960s,” he told Polivy.
Sapan, who Polivy describes as “brilliant,” has done projects for an incredible cast of clients, including Andy Warhol, former mayor Ed Koch and the New York City Ballet. He’s also worked on holograms for the major credit card companies but, as he told Polivy, “The corporate people come to me, but I don’t want to be corporate.”
Now, a major part of his business are by-appointment tours and classes, so the pandemic has hit the studio hard. “The last several years, the tours were a big deal of [our] regular activity,” Sapan told Polivy, admitting that these days, he’s missing this “substantial part of the revenue.”
240 E. 26th St.; 212-686-9397
Watt a calling! Owner David Brooks is the third-generation owner of this family business founded by his grandfather, who went door to door selling lightbulbs during World War II. Today, the store carries some 36,000 specimens. “When you look around and see what’s there, you’re in awe,” said Polivy.
Brooks actually left a career in management consulting in St. Louis to take over Just Bulbs, and was featured on “Late Night With David Letterman” in 1982 for the family’s unusual expertise. His other claim to fame: Just Bulbs worked with the Plaza Hotel in 1986 for its “Eloise at the Plaza” holiday installation, helping them pick out the perfect pink hue for the lights.
This year, the store qualified as an essential business under the hardware clause, so Brooks never had to close, although business isn’t exactly booming. His biggest source of revenue these days? Shipping to people’s country homes.
222 E. 58th St.; 212-888-5707
Casey Rubber Stamps
“It’s a tiny shop, kind of like Santa’s workshop,” said Polivy, who said there’s not a theme or concept that Ireland-born owner John Casey can’t execute. “Anything you can think of is on the shelf or he can make it for you. He’s an institution,” said the author, noting that Casey’s detailed and eye-catching work has been name-checked in Martha Stewart Weddings.
Casey is weathering the pandemic without tourist traffic and is hoping the luck of the Irish will help him bounce back. “We are doing some custom rubber stamps, [mainly for] young people who are out of work now and are trying to create their own small businesses,” Casey told Polivy. He’s optimistic about 2021: “I believe we are going to have a mini boom in New York and I predict that people will start traveling like crazy and coming into the shop.”
322 E. 11th St.; 917-669-4151
Harlem’s Dawn Harris-Martine, or “grandma,” told Polivy that she considers children’s literacy to be her life’s work. As the owner of a children’s book and toy store, she still remembers herself, the daughter of struggling parents, learning how to read on her own in local libraries. “The library was my baby sitter,” she told Polivy.
Now, the Sarah Lawrence grad and retired teacher of 40 years sells thousands of books, as well as comic book kits, remote-controlled cars, and MTA-branded train sets that city kids love. “She has one of the best collections of multicultural and multiracial books,” said Polivy.
In an otherwise difficult year, one bright spot has been an increase in generosity, especially at children’s toy drives. “Every year they do this, but this year it’s tenfold,” Harris-Martine told Polivy.
84 W. 120th St.; 212-360-6776
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