Tales of the Unexpected

When I first arrived in New York the lovely Thomas sent me a copy of New York’s Unique and Unexpected Places, which actually was an unexpected, and much appreciated, gift. I am the sort of person who likes to brag about the interesting things they do with their life, when really I spend a considerable amount of time spreadeagled on the sofa watching terrible romantic comedies and eating gallons of icecream, and so this book is perfect for me. It makes me sound wonderfully cultured and knowledgeable when I lead my friends off on exciting weekend adventures that are off the usual beaten tourist paths, and I of course accept their praise of my amazingness without revealing my source!

This past weekend my friends and I hopped off on one of these adventures to the South Street Seaport Museum, which is downtown, below Wall Street. This is one of the Museums that tourists don’t tend to visit, and this was exemplified by its complete emptiness on a Saturday morning. We were entranced by the beautiful exhibit of Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of New York, spanning from the late 1800s to the 1930s. They chronicled New York from its Gilded Age carriages parked outside a snowy Central Park and majestic gas lit, brownstone lined streets, to the soaring Art Deco skyscrapers and relentless scaffolding of the post war years, when New York epitomised the spirit of modernism and restlessness that marked these glory years before the Great Depression and WW2. I found the images haunting and beautiful, and I was delighted to find the accompanying book, which I think I shall treat myself to as a Christmas present!

The Museum is also showing an exhibition on the SS Normandie, the great Art Deco cruise liner, and this was similarly breathtaking. The design, furnishings, and atmosphere of this luxurious floating palace were brought to life in the fascinating displays, and I was left desperate to know more. What I wouldn’t give to have been sitting on the beautiful embroidered chairs, listening to jazz music being played in the exquisitely painted, sparkling ballroom on board! Host to numerous celebrities and movers and shakers of the day, the SS Normandie would have cost the best part of $100,000 in today’s money to sail on, and from what I saw, it would have been worth every penny!

Part of the Museum, and featured in the aforementioned book, is Bowne and Co Stationer’s, an original Victorian stationers’ shop that still functions today. The shop sells beautiful stationery, cards, posters and book related items, and I was thrilled to find some letter press printed book plates, something I have wanted for a while. The shop is situated amongst the beautiful red brick Wharf buildings that make up the Seaport area, and this little section of the city makes you feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of midtown. Cobbled streets, early Victorian buildings and faded painted signs reveal the history of this once bustling marketplace, the original trading centre of New York in the first half of the 19th century. It’s a very atmospheric place and I highly recommend a visit. If you do go down, you must eat at Table Tales; it served the most delicious lunch I’ve had since I got here – buttermilk battered chicken, potato salad, cajun mayonnaise, chocolate creme brulee…need I say more?!!

While my friend was here last week, we popped into another off the beaten path New York treasure; the New York Historical Society. Unfortunately they are mostly closed for refurbishment, which is a shame as they have the best photo collection in the city, but they do currently have a brilliant exhibition about the discovery of insulin and the threat diabetes used to be to the world’s population. I didn’t expect to find it of much interest, but I was absolutely fascinated, and I learned a lot about a subject I wasn’t aware had such a powerful and moving past. There is also a very good gift shop!

I plan on working my way through the Unique and Unexpected Places book while I am here, so I will continue to share my varied adventures with you as I go along!


  1. I’m so glad I’m not the only person who finds the challenge to do interesting things in life sometimes resulting in a close relationship with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s finest…

    Sounds like you are having a fun-filled and fascinating time in New York.

    And I envy you your beatiful stationery shop!

    1. No, you are certainly not, Yvann! Me, Ben and Jerry are VERY good friends!

      I really am! The shop is amazing…it’s a shame they don’t have an online shop, though it could be very dangerous for my wallet if they did!

  2. I think in every city there are nooks which are unique and interesting. I think you are stumbling on them a few at a time. Liked this post very much!

  3. Yet another interesting adventure you take us on, Rachel. I love stationery. Browne & Co. Stationers would have had me dropping a was of money when I was barely in the door. Isn’t it fun to explore?

    I do wish we could visit the New York Historical Society. I know we would find the exhibit on insulin interesting. As you may know, my husband has had diabetes for 43 years.

    Your wonderful spirit of adventure inspires me. Thanks for another good post.

    1. Thank you Penny! Yes…the shop is beautiful AND dangerous…I have a drawer full of empty notebooks – they are my vice!

      Of course, you told me that – yes, I think you both would find it fascinating. I believe there is a book to go alongside the exhibition if you’re interested…hang on, I’ll go look…yes, here it is – http://www.nyhistorystore.com/ – it’s called Breakthrough by Arthur Ainsberg and Thea Cooper.

  4. Darn, and I nearly went to the insulin exhibit this past weekend. Instead of that, I went to see a display of classical heroes (also quite good), which had tons of security guards who scowled at me with completely uncalled-for sternness.

    Your book sounds so useful! I never know what places I should go check out on weekends. :p

  5. I agree with you. It is so much fun to go to those places that aren’t filled with tourists that give you a real sense of the place and period. It sounds like a place you could wander around in for some time. Thanks for letting us go along on your adventure.

    1. Yes it is! I love going to empty museums because then I can take my time and actually SEE what I have come to look at, rather than waiting in line and having a quick glimpse before feeling pressured to move on! You are welcome, Janet, I am so glad you enjoyed reading about it!

  6. How thoughtful of Thomas, such a wonderful man!

    The Art Deco period is absolutely stunning in every respect and never fails to hold my gaze in whatever format it appears. And I must say that stationers’ would have made me feel all warm and fuzzy!

    There was once an article in a Country Living magazine about a woman who worked in a sunny room with a vintage printing press making cards. A delightful occupation if you ask me!

    1. I know, he really is!

      Oh my goodness – I am obsessed with Art Deco! I could go back to the 1930s right now!

      That would be amazing – I would love to know how to use one of those old printing presses. The stuff they produce is just so beautiful!

  7. I need a book like that when I go back to London. So little time to revisit my old home, so bewildering trying to find exciting and worthwhile places.
    However, I can always look at the Booksnob archive for inspiration.

    What a way to leave a bicycle, all any old how on the doorstep of Bowne & Co!

    I meant to ask, those brownstone buildings, rather despised by some characters in The Age of Innocence – are they still – looked down on, I mean?

    So, no snow in NY yet, apart from those flakes drifting across the pictures on your blog?

    1. I could do with such a book about London too! I have been to a few out of the way places in London but never anywhere as fun as in New York!

      I know – I was so annoyed it was there, ruining my photo!

      Oh heavens no – they cost millions and are much beloved these days – period homes are few and far between and they are very coveted. Shame really – if I’d been born 20 years before I was born I could have snapped one up cheaply and be sitting on a goldmine by now! I think you can still buy reasonably priced ones in Harlem – by reasonable I mean relative to the price in Manhattan!

      We DID have some snow on Monday, which was very exciting, but no new snowfall since then. It is VERY cold though! I am hoping for a white Christmas!

    1. Thank you Susan! I’m glad you’re enjoying reading about them! You really must – I remember you saying before you didn’t enjoy NY but the book features lots of lovely, quiet, out of the way places that would be perfect for you if you hate the hustle and bustle!

  8. I enjoy your pictures of New York – I love the place.
    (by the way, I began “Doctor Zhivago” yesterday. I’m sure it will take me a while!)

  9. I’ve loved stationery shops since I was a child and that museum looks fascinating. I’m so enjoying my vicarious visit to New York!

  10. Isn’t it just beyond wonderful that Bowne and Co. still exists, and apparently makes a go of it. It makes my heart leap up. And how I love reading your stories.

    1. I know – it really is a treasure trove of a shop, and so individual. In a world that seems to be taken over by chain stores, it’s a true jewel! Thank you, Nan – it makes my heart leap up to know you enjoy reading them! 🙂

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