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Blocks with style

For locals and visitors alike, this bustling boulevard, packed with stores that are hip or not, boutiques or chains, is the place to shop and be seen.
For locals and visitors alike, this bustling boulevard, packed with stores that are hip or not, boutiques or chains, is the place to shop and be seen. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Christopher Muther and Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / December 16, 2007

We set out on Newbury Street to find the unique shops, the stores that aren't in every mall (sorry, Pottery Barn), hip city center (this means you, Lush), and posh shopping district in the world (au revoir, Diptyque). But after an hour of this hard-hitting reporting, we grow a tad peckish and need a respite.

Betraying our mission, we stop into the nearest cafe, Starbucks, and begin stuffing ourselves with chocolate-peppermint doughnuts and low-fat blueberry coffee cake. But we pay dearly for the transgression. As soon as we step outside with the pastry, a pack of angry finches starts diving at us. OK, it's only three finches, but they appear to have been sent from Alfred Hitchcock, and they terrorize us until we run screaming to the next block like a couple of latter-day Tippi Hedrens.

Newbury can be a strange place, with attack birds and drive-by blasts of klezmer music from the Hanukkah mobile (you can't makes these things up). But look past the chain stores and the tourists, and you'll find a street that is still utterly charming. The first retail store opened on Newbury at the turn of the last century, but it wasn't until the 1970s that the strip gained prominence as the city's premier shopping destination for hip and not so hip stores. Falling into the latter category is a place that neither of us had ever noticed: a few doors down from Chanel, a petite shop called Knit & Needlepoint.

It seems out of place so close to Chanel and Burberry, but with a 16-year history on the strip, Knit & Needlepoint has earned its place as a Newbury staple, especially with so many hipsters turning to cross-stitch for comfort. The yarn-stocked nook sells materials for Red Sox pillows that say "Boston Believes" (just in case you still don't believe), granny-friendly woven purses, and custom-made patterns that are made at the shop based on a photograph, in the event you want to turn your cat into cross-stitch.

Across the street, the burly looking security guard at the door of Dorfman Jewelers nearly scares us off, but it turns out his burliness is necessary because Dorfman sells baubles with price tags that go into the millions. Despite our slovenly appearance and overwhelmed eyes, general manager Gerard Riveron shows us around the pricey collections.

The advantage to spending time on Newbury, instead of, say, at the South Shore Plaza, is that there are boutiques selling clothing lines hand-picked by buyers who travel extensively and stay current on new designers. The first time we met Alan Bilzerian, the man behind the eponymous store, was in Paris at the tail end of fashion week as he was about to meet with designer Azzedine Alaia. Bilzerian stocks names such as Alexander McQueen and Yohji Yamamoto, and as proof of his store's importance in the city, we run into kabuki socialite Marilyn Reisman perusing the racks.

A few doors down, the father-son team behind Riccardi and Relic also takes buying trips to Europe to track down new designers and the best denim. At the other end of Newbury, Dava Muramatsu stocks labels such as Comme des Garcons in her boutique Matsu.

Technically on Berkeley Street, Louis Boston is probably the city's best example of an independent store where buyers stock everything from art to business suits. The building, designed by William Preston in 1864 as the Museum of Natural History, sells home goods, men's and women's clothes, CDs, and also houses a restaurant and a salon. On our reporter's pay, much of the designer stock is out of our financial grasp. But since we're in the neighborhood we stop in for some essentials - specifically MarieBelle chocolate and French pop music. Man cannot survive on chocolate peppermint doughnuts alone.

Committed to supporting all things local, we stop at Gallery NAGA inside the Church of the Covenant, which, according to director Arthur Dion, made a bold decision in the 1980s to feature mainly Boston artists. NAGA usually shows paintings, such as the current exhibit by Todd McKie, but the gallery is also known for its collection of high-end, hand-crafted furniture. We bypass the paintings and furniture to check out the provocative holographs by Boston artist Harriet Casdin-Silver. The images (and the body parts) pop.

Neither of us had noticed the New England Historic Genealogical Society building on previous trips to Newbury. When you're rushing to Urban Outfitters, it doesn't necessarily jump out. It's the kind of place that you would expect to smell like your grandmother's attic (and it kind of does), but of all our stops, we spend the most time here. With the help of a savvy researcher, we quickly learn that Lorenz Muther arrived in the United States from Austria, and the Goldstein name is from, um, Scotland. For $15 you can spend a day (or $75 for a year) trying to trace your family history.

During summer months, L'Aroma Cafe is an ideal spot for people-watching on the patio, especially since there's no more Armani Cafe, which until recently was the place on Newbury to sip, watch, and judge. Inside, the off-season people-watching is also respectable, especially if you're in the mood to rub shoulders with a Eurolicious crowd.

Technically, we don't require a $198 pink pillow with a gold beetle on it, but once we are inside Bliss Home we begin to redefine our wants versus our needs. We start to believe we need that pillow, with its clash of pastel and metallic. We also believe we might need to outfit ourselves with Mandarina Duck totes and Alessi watches. That's why we run out the door before we open our wallets. Owner Panamai Manadee moved Bliss from the Porter Square area to Newbury Street about five years ago. It seems like a better fit for a boutique that sells a $399 Magis stepladder.

There isn't an abundance of local designers on Newbury Street - the high rent keeps them in South Boston and other far-flung locations - but Maha Barsom, who trained in Paris and now teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, recently opened a tiny shop on Newbury where she sells perfect white shirts for women. For ultimate bargain window shopping, we gaze at the displays in the School of Fashion Design. Thanks to the window display and lobby gallery space, we get a glimpse of the "Project Runway"-esque goings-on at the center for couture-to-come. This year the window featured gowns by Joe Carl and couture fashioned from recycled materials.

Fenway Park sells the best cotton candy in Boston, but Sugar Heaven, the subterranean sweet shop, has a machine where you can choose flavors and watch the fairy floss made fresh. After stuffing ourselves silly with chocolate-covered brownie pellets (thanks, sample lady), we move on to the European candy bars and Hello Kitty Pez dispensers.

We do a double take past Sugar Heaven when we see the "gently-worn" clothing shop Second Time Around. That's because it is the second time we have seen it. There are actually two on Newbury, one on the way to Massachusetts Avenue and another closer to the Boston Public Garden. Employee Jeff Casler says the local chain has enough inventory to fill six locations on Newbury Street, but has settled on two.

Casler says the store is "a great resource for people to bring clothing in to make money." He also recommends shopping frequently; the store schedules about 25 drop-offs a day.

When we pass by Too Timid, we assume it's some kind of bath shop. But upon closer inspection, we realize that this is a store for folks looking to enhance their - how to say this delicately - personal pleasure. Given the merchandise, the store is quite tasteful. Owner Chad Chunglo opened the store as a place for folks to find these bedroom products without being confronted with pornography.

We confess that the main reason we stop into Johnny Cupcakes is to see if adorable owner and Elijah Wood doppelganger Johnny Earle is working. Sigh. He isn't. We buy a "Make Cupcakes, Not War" T-shirt to ease the pain. The store is brilliantly designed like a bakery, with shirts displayed in pastry cases. Naturally, the thought of baked goods is making us hungry.

There are a few restaurant options nearby, including a newly-opened French eatery called La Voile, but we notice another new place in the former INQ space called Cafeteria Boston. We walk in and essentially crash the restaurant's opening party, but they're kind enough to seat us to enjoy the free champagne. It looks like Cafeteria is striving to be the new home for displaced patrons of the late Armani Cafe - meaning we are not wearing enough black or Armani to fit in with the stylish crowd. Which prompts us to drink even more champagne.

And just when we think we have seen the best of the strip, we arrive at the Fairy Shop, a hideaway between Gloucester and Hereford streets guarded by a team of gnomes not unlike the little guy who traveled internationally in the movie "Amelie." Owner Michael Selletto says that although his shop is named for winged creatures, the gnome statues outsell the fairies, unicorns, and dragons.

Selletto, who has run his fantasy shop for 13 years, says there are actually five types of gnomes. Only one is female. Her name is Zelda.

"She keeps order," Selletto said.

And to think we saw her on Newbury Street.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com, Meredith Goldstein at mgoldstein@globe.com.

Related

If You Go

Knit & Needlepoint
617-536-9338
needlepoint-boston.com
Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Dorfman Jewelers
617-536-2022
10-6 Monday-Saturday, noon-5 Sunday.

Alan Bilzerian
617-536-1001
alanbilzerian.com
10-6 Monday-Saturday, till 7 Thursday.

Louis Boston
617-262-6100
louisboston.com
11-6 Monday, 10-6 Tuesday-Wednesday, 10-7 Thursday-Saturday. Holiday hours online.

Gallery NAGA
617-267-9060
gallerynaga.com
10-5:30 Tuesday-Saturday.

L'Aroma Café
617-412-4001
7-7 Monday-Friday, 7:30-7 Saturday, 8-7 Sunday.

New England Historic Genealogical Society
617-536-5740
newenglandancestors.org
Day admission $15. Open 9-5 Tuesday-Saturday, 9-9 Wednesday.

Riccardi/Relic
617-266-3158
riccardiboston.com 11-7 Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.

Bliss Home
617-421-5544
blisshome.com
10:30-6:30 Monday-Saturday, noon-5 Sunday.

Maha Barsom
617-247-1103
mahabarsom.com
11-6 Monday-Friday, noon-5 Saturday-Sunday.

School of Fashion Design
617-536-9343
schooloffashiondesign.org
Gallery hours 9-5 Monday-Thursday, 9-4:30 Friday, 10-4 Saturday.

International Poster Gallery
617-375-0076
internationalposter.com
10-6 Monday-Saturday, noon-6 Sunday.

Sugar Heaven
617-266-6969
sugarheaven.us 11 a.m.-midnight daily.

Second Time Around
617-266-1113
secondtimearound.net
11-7 Monday-Friday, 10-7 Saturday, noon-6 Sunday.

Matsu
617-266-9707
matsuboston.com
11-6 Monday-Saturday, 1-5 Sunday.

La Voile
617-587-4200
lavoileboston.net
5:30-11 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.

Johnny Cupcakes
617-375-0100
johnnycupcakes.com
10-8 Monday-Thursday, 10-9 Friday-Saturday, 11-8 Sunday.

Cafeteria Boston
617-536-2233
cafeteriaboston.com 11:30-11:30 Sunday-Wednesday, till 12:30 a.m. Thursday-Saturday.

Too Timid
617-431-5080
tootimid.com
11-7 Monday-Tuesday, till 8 Wednesday-Saturday, noon-6 Sunday.

The Fairy Shop
617-262-2520
thefairyshop.com Noon-7 daily.

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