Ralph Gardner Jr: Scents And Sensibility
I was walking through Greenwich Village – after scoring stocking stuffers at Myers of Keswick, a store that specializes in British treats -- when I observed what seemed like contradictory trends. On the one hand, there were lots of empty storefronts; the forces at work said to be landlords asking exorbitant rents as well as the demise of brick and mortar stores as more and more shopping moves online.
But on the other hand, there seemed to be lots of fragrance and wellness shops selling things like perfumes, body scrubs and scented candles.
I asked Darcy Doniger what she thought that was about? Darcy and her partner Carolyn Mix own 2 Note, a delightful fragrance company with a welcoming storefront on Warren Street in Hudson, NY.
2 Note refers to the confluence of the women’s careers as musicians – Carolyn plays the violin and Darcy the cello – as well as creators of a menu of plant-based scents. “As musicians,” Darcy told me, “we’re drawn to the parallels between the senses, scent and sound.”
2Note makes perfumes as well as bath and body care products crafted in small batches. Mixed and bottled before your eyes.
“The Organ” is their name for the rows of amber bottles, filled with concentrate, in their workshop directly behind the checkout counter. That’s for their resemblance to the reeds on a pipe organ, but producing scents rather than sounds.
Darcy told me: “The more complex, crazy and insane life becomes – that is the one thing that everybody now is just searching for: something to help them relax, to make them feel like they’re doing something good or healthy for themselves.”
She went on: “We’ll do anything. Whatever it is. Is it going to make me feel better? All that wellness is probably, in part, because we’re not well.”
She added: “I think that’s the draw to the Hudson River Valley. It’s to get away, breathe a little fresh air and slow down for a minute.”
2 Note succeeds at helping customers achieve that goal. As they step in the store they’re greeted by a small fragrant caldron of simmering spices – Maine Balsam Fir, Cedarwood, cinnamon and clove.
Everything about the store – the white shelves, the reusable clear glass bottles, the unembellished labels – seem designed to reassure customers that simplicity and serenity is achievable, and that 2 Note has their best interests at heart.
“The most common reaction to being here,” Darcy said, “is ‘I want to stay. You guys need sofas.’”
But what the store really did was make me realize how much is lost by having so much of shopping moving online. Whether it’s Fifth Avenue in New York City where its anchoring department stores have gone out of business or are just hanging on by the skin of their teeth, or Hudson, Chatham, NY or Great Barrington, MA whose appeal seems at least in part a desire to return to an earlier, more intimate, personalized era, it’s hard to overstate the deeply civilized and civilizing aspects of shopping.
I’m not referring so much to the gluttony of wanting, needing, spending and buying. Less of it, generally, is more and better. But the sensual pleasure of entering a curated, aesthetically choreographed space and departing with something useful or precious, or even nothing at all.
The only thing that can improve it is a conveniently located succession of such experiences, an enticing cascade of shops in close proximity. I suppose that was the thought behind shopping malls, which are now also on the wane.
But there doesn’t seem much serendipity let alone serenity behind the stores in malls, most of them national chains.
What you’re getting these days in places like Hudson -- though Hudson often seems to have jumped the curb, becoming overly precious, the stuff of New Yorker cartoons -- are merchants such as Darcy and Carolyn with personal visions as well as the passion and perseverance to pursue them. At more manageable rents than they’d find in Manhattan or Brooklyn.
From 2 Note we made our way to Talbott & Arding, the brainchild of former Chez Panisse chef and Alice Waters collaborator Mona Talbott and cheese expert Kay Arding, where we helped ourselves to some of the store’s hearty perennially simmering chicken bone broth – at least until it runs out, as it sometimes does – and tasty mac and cheese to go.
From there it was onto Fluff where we bought a couple of pair of their exceptional alpaca socks as stocking stuffers. But not before my wife dropped in at Hudson Wine Merchants and its helpful owner Michael Albin. Hudson Wine Merchants is typically my wife and daughters primary and secondary destination in Hudson.
And before heading home I displayed admirable yet worrying, wholly uncharacteristic, restraint at Vasilow’s Confectionary on Columbia Street. I limited myself to four handcrafted milk chocolate Santa pops, none of them destined for my own stocking.
However, the whole outing – if at a certain cost – was a deeply experiential one. Shopping, at its best, is an old-fashioned way of socializing.
And at a time when so much seems to be spinning out of control, it’s an opportunity to focus on life’s small pleasures. And small pleasures, in the end, are what it’s all about. No purchase necessary.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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