While walking in my neighborhood a few months ago, I noticed a chalkboard outside a shop advertising local and sustainable goods. I popped inside and found a well-curated boutique run by Sylvia Parker, a long time Upper West Sider and the knowledgeable proprietor of Magpie. Sylvia was kind enough to answer a few questions and let me photograph all the goodies in her shop. I also got to see her in action—giving recommendations, sharing the stories of items, and chatting with customers. In fact, I witnessed a man come into Magpie for the first time to buy a card and stay to recommend options for another customer looking for a housewarming gift. It was a friendly and cooperative effort and at the conclusion, gifts in hand, the woman exclaimed, "I always find the most amazing things in this store!". The whole thing smacked of serendipity and all I can say is that if you need a special and sustainable gift, go to Magpie and you'll likely leave with the perfect thing.
Introduce yourself. Tell us a little about your background.
I’m a native New Yorker—I was born on the Upper West Side. I attended college at Barnard and have lived here for more than thirty years after growing up in the wilds of suburban New Jersey, upstate New York, Connecticut, and Tennessee.
Before Magpie, I was a business and legal editor, but had always dreamed of having my own shop—work that would be more visually and creatively satisfying and also support artists, the community, and companies that were doing good work. No experience, though, which is what led me to apply for a position at the American Folk Art Museum (and their shop) which I had long admired. The director there, Marie DiManno, was a gifted retailer who became a mentor and was so generous in sharing her more than thirty years of buying and merchandising experience with me. Through four years of experience at AFAM, I learned enough to do a start-up gift shop for the South Street Seaport Museum and then opened Magpie in 2012. I wanted a location on the Upper West because I realized that so many small, independent shops were being forced out of business. I wanted to bring that back and also offer brands and products that customers couldn’t find elsewhere. It gives me great pleasure to support local artists and other small businesses.
We are both Upper West Siders. Yay! Where are your favorite places to eat / play / hang out in the ‘hood?
On Sundays, you’ll often find me at the local greenmarket and flea market at Columbus and 77th Street which allows me to indulge two loves: farm-fresh, local produce and vintage shopping. For walking and biking, I love the Hudson River bike path by Riverside Park and Central Park’s rustic mini-waterfall and bird feeders in the Rambles where you can talk to local birders about their favorite sightings. Also the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which runs interesting film festivals, including one now called Sound & Vision—can’t wait to see a movie about a Japanese trance didgeridoo player!
New food discovery: the outdoor backyard garden at Bustan is a peaceful, pretty spot for weekend lunch. Try the soft egg burek (poached egg with spinach and truffle oil). And I can’t wait to try the new UWS outpost of Xi’an Famous Foods.
Although I’ve lived here for such a long time, there’s always something new to discover. People have told me that I need to visit The Lotus Garden, a hidden gem of a garden that’s only open on Sundays.
[Note: I WILL become a key-holder at The Lotus Garden!]
Have customers (or their inquiries) changed over the past two years with regards to sustainability?
Definitely more knowledgeable; more and more customers are familiar with the concept of fair trade, for example, and why it’s important to support the fair trade community. I believe that merchandise still has to have functional and aesthetic appeal for customers, but the knowledge that a product is made sustainably of organic or recycled ingredients definitely gives customers an added incentive to buy.
How do you choose which brands to carry in the store? How do you find new ones?
I look for the beautiful, the whimsical, and intriguing—something that customers won’t find anywhere else. I also look for locally made or designed brands, and products that are handmade or made of organic or repurposed materials. If imported, I try to support fair trade companies and artisans as much as possible. Stationery and paper goods tend to be letterpress, handcrafted, or made of recycled paper.
For sourcing, I attend trade and craft shows, including a giant week-long outdoor flea market in Brimfield in Massachusetts and the Renegade Crafts Fair in Brooklyn. In the shop, we have our own in-house designer, Laura Rodriguez, who has her own company and is designing stylish products for kids and the home. Local artists will approach me, which is how I’ve found some of our most popular artists, including Jennifer Elling who makes beautiful origami-like sculptures out of vintage books. My newest designer is a woodworker from North Carolina named Buzz Coren who makes amazing earrings and pins out of intricately handcrafted hardwood.
What’s your favorite item in the store right now?
Teenie sterling silver and gold fill rings for $22 from Lio & Linn, two young Japanese designers from Brooklyn. The rings are handmade, can be mixed and matched, and worn either above or below the knuckle. We literally can’t keep them in stock!
I rush into Magpie with a hostess gift emergency. Quick! What do you recommend I buy?
Meow Meow Tweet’s Tangerine Basil and Grapefruit Mint soaps are organic, handmade in Brooklyn, and adorably packaged in labels they design themselves. Also Sobremesa’s hand-embroidered towels from a four-brother fair trade workshop in El Tun, Guatemala.
You are the elusive New York City native! Is there any other place you wouldn’t mind living? Like, under duress?
If put to the test, I wish I could revisit New Zealand. They have incredible natural scenery, including volcanic lakes and bubbling geysers; down-to-earth, welcoming people; and delicious wine and locally sourced food.
Where do you see Magpie and the sustainability movement going in the next few years?
I hope that people will have the foresight to realize that the sustainability movement is essential if we have any intention of preserving what’s left of the world for future generations. The impulse to buy gifts, for oneself or loved ones, won’t go away; but I hope that people will come to do so in a more thoughtful way and realize that supporting a shop like Magpie can help them to buy something that is both beautiful and sustainably made.
Find Sylvia at Magpie on the Upper West Side (488 Amsterdam Avenue) or online:
Visiting NYC? Get this map of more of my favorite sustainable places.
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