After around a decade of living in the West Village, author Sloane Crosley is convinced the neighborhood is weirder than it seems. Yes, there are the endless blocks of inviting cafés and boutiques. “But if you talk to any elderly person,” she says, “they will turn out to be, like, a former Egyptologist or a first-chair violinist or, fuck, Neil Young’s roadie or something.”
Consider the WestView News, the local paper: George Capsis, who is well into his 90s, puts out the monthly, which seems to fill a vacuum outside the internet, running poetry on the cover and personal essays about local matters (a recent headline: “Bullied by Smart Meters: Technology We Can Do Without”). “I have this feeling that it’ll somehow be the key to me buying an apartment and cracking the system,” she says, “even though it absolutely does not have a real-estate section.” Crosley’s new book, Cult Classic, is itself a Manhattan story that captures some of the city’s provincial energy. It follows Lola, recently and ambivalently engaged to a man nicknamed Boots, who can’t seem to stop running into ex-boyfriends. The eventual explanation involves a cult of personality and a Psychology Today–like magazine, but it also has to do with the frequency of coincidental run-ins that happen in a big city.
The West Village, she thinks, can feel like a small town — “If you stay in the same place too long, you’re going around in circles with the same people” — though it turns into “a giant photo shoot” every weekend. The neighborhood is undeniably a tourist destination, but it doesn’t exactly have distinct landmarks, so visitors tend to wander. “It’s still idyllic,” she says. “You don’t have these kind of blood clots of tourists slowing everything down.” Amid the influencers and celebrities (Crosley recently helped Frances McDormand and her Vespa get through a garden gate), there are plenty of places for a freelance writer to stretch her legs, from a grocery store with red-bean cake to a cobblestone lane worth risking your ankles for.
Charles Street and Waverly Place
There are all these little birdhouses outside McCarthy Square, which is a triangle with benches in it. It’s not so much a park as a resort for rats. It’s always been a literal manifestation, in my mind, of “Watch the birdies so you don’t notice the rats!”
There used to be more birdhouses there — I don’t know what happened to them; maybe the birdhouse market crashed. The manager at Morandi, a popular Keith McNally spot on Waverly Place, once mentioned to me that he thinks it might be someone who lives in the building above Morandi who made them. When the snow falls on them, it falls as it would on a house, and it’s just so childlike and adorable and charming.
28 Eighth Avenue, at West 12th Street
I’m sure it’s described in every guidebook as a no-frills diner. It has one of those menus that I associate with my suburban childhood, where you’d go to a diner and technically there’d be no spinach omelet, but you see spinach somewhere else and you know you can ask for them to put spinach in your omelet. You can kind of go shopping with the ingredients and put them together.
I have a standing date with a friend there. Well, not standing, squatting — it’s semi-regular. I have a squatting date with a friend who keeps his own maple syrup there because the French toast is the best thing to get. Sometimes I’ll go without him, which is a huge betrayal, and ask for his syrup. And the staff says no.
Margaret Wise Brown’s writing cottage
121 Charles Street, at Greenwich Street
There’s a house at the end of Charles Street that’s a couple hundred years old and looks like Stuart Little’s house, in the sense that the world is built up around it. And Margaret Wise Brown used to live there. It’s beautiful but tiny — I don’t think it can be more than 1,500 square feet, if that, but it’s a house. It’s an entire sort of microcosm of suburban life with a doggy door and everything. There’s nothing that says that Margaret Wise Brown lived there. You see people stop and gawk, but then they kind of move on because that’s sort of the end of it.
It’s a little cobblestone street, basically entryless, that runs along the backs of brownstones. It’s very short. It runs parallel — for as long as it runs — to Charles Street. It’s very difficult to walk on; you have to be willing to risk your ankles. It’s an accessible version of my neighborhood’s more infamous mews: the little tiny pockets of private-garden perfection. There’s a vine-covered door leading out to the lane that has what looks like a dark brass Venetian knocker shaped like a little hand. I was telling someone about it and she laughed and said, “Oh, that’s my house. If you’re ever writing and you need to take a walk, come knock on my door.”
Three Lives & Company
154 West 10th Street, at Waverly Place
It looks like Joseph Mitchell is smiling down on it. It’s not the only game in town, but it does what it does very well. It’s well lit, and it makes you feel not stupid. When you talk to the staff, you feel as though they’re playing up in terms of your reading recommendations but never in a way that pushes you or makes you feel intimidated. You kind of get swept up being there. That’s the reason I have two copies of The Dud Avocado in my house.
I’ve known the owner, Toby Cox, for almost 20 years because a friend of mine used to work at the store. I walked in recently and they all started laughing because I guess an hour prior one of the booksellers had pounced on another brunette girl in a mask, thinking it was me. I had to quell my desire to ask them if she was extremely good looking.
450 6th Avenue, at West 10th Street
This is a Japanese grocery store that opened during the pandemic. It has every possible noodle and rice grain and paste and sauce and snack, and it also has my favorite red-bean cake. In the back, past all the groceries, there’s a cornucopia of puffy stickers and scented erasers and cat-shaped sponges. It has a Wonka-esque density. I feel a sense of reversion when I go to the back of the store. You have to be your own parent, by which I mean that before you go in you have to say to yourself, Okay, I’m allowed to come out with only three things. I recently bought a cat-shaped potato-chip clip there.
C.O. Bigelow Chemists
414 Avenue of the Americas, at West 8th Street
You can get the best hair ties and French hair clips here. It’s a very good place for a minor indulgence, like a fancy body scrub or a terry-cloth headband, and over-the-top housewarming gifts too. The only other place in New York where I get the same feeling of security, as though I’m in good hands, is at doctors’ offices on the Upper East Side. You know, where you feel like, These are the same products and people that are treating the rich and mighty. They sort of cater to the idea that you might need some comfort — and that there might be someone over the age of 20 shopping there.
56 7th Avenue South, at Morton Street
Their exterior décor is keys, a sort of trippy art project made all out of keys. Not to criticize whoever did it, but it kind of looks like a freshman year at Ann Arbor in the ’90s installation. It’s just swirls of keys overlapped on one another.
The owner’s name is Philip Mortillaro, and he’s owned the place for over 40 years. There’s something sort of charmingly bemused about him. He’s a purely helpful but not obsequious person. If there has not been a “Talk of the Town” about him, I’d be surprised. For a while, people were staying at my house or watching the cat or just watching the house when I was away, so I was there pretty frequently to get keys made. And what’s amazing is he never has to look up my name, and he knows where I live and the name of my super.
325 West 11th Street, at Greenwich Street
My secret favorite in this neighborhood is Orient Express. It’s named for the famous passenger train. They do a nice cocktail, they do a nice sconce, the chairs don’t wobble, and the bathroom is clean. The cocktails are sophisticated but unfussy, and they will put candied ginger in anything. And you can have as much of it as you want. People went here more when there was spillover from the Spotted Pig or the Rusty Knot, but those don’t exist anymore. Or maybe it’s just a blind-date spot: People go and they have a bad date and they never come back even though the cocktails and the ambience were good. But it’s not old and therefore not cool, and it’s not new and therefore not cool. It just sort of operates in the space between. Somehow there’s always a seat, but it’s never empty — that’s such a rare, great quality.
Hudson River Park Tennis Courts
92 Hudson River Greenway, at Spring Street
There are only three courts, which you line up to play on. And if your partner is a minute late, you get to sit on the bench and eat a sandwich by the water. What’s hard is that a minute late represents an hour. So you can meet someone for the movies and if they’re slightly late, you give ’em a hard time. It’s fine. But if someone is late to meet you for playing tennis and someone else takes your court, you’re set back an hour, possibly two. It’s a very jovial place, though; there are usually kids practicing, and it’s fun to play there. It has a beautiful view of the city.
There’s one couple — this old man and woman I started talking to ages ago — and they go there almost every day. They use it in the way you tell yourself you’re going to use the city but don’t. It seems quite rarefied that these people play tennis every day, as if they have a private tennis court. But you, too, could have this life. It sounds sort of inaccessible but is the most accessible.