Interview with Caravansary co-owner, Bill Johnstone, July 2010
By Kathryn Adisman
For weeks I’d walk by, see the gated storefront and pretend: “They’re on vacation.” As weeks turned to months: “They’ll be back in time for Easter.”
Never peering past the gated window, where a few unplugged toys on satiny red paper stood still (like time), into the dark recesses of the shop, I held onto my belief the way a kid holds onto faith in Santa, until one day in early March 2011…
I was sharing a bench with Jane Street neighbors; talk turned to the “demise” of the neighborhood and the Christmas shop around the corner. They found out from the “Clock Lady” next door: Caravansary, on Greenwich Avenue, closed.
I was shocked. But why would I be? You couldn’t walk a block in the West Village without passing an empty storefront. On 7th Avenue they stood three in a row like graves. Paper Works and Jessie’s, victims of St. Vincent’s closure, both had posted signs. It was a long goodbye for regulars to whom these stores meant refuge and community.
Caravansary was too small and crowded with things (jewelry, novelties, antique toys, ornaments, lava lamps, snow globes), to be a place for hanging out. Often, I’d stand outside transfixed by the toy carrousel spinning in the window, but not until that July, making the rounds of local businesses in the wake of the hospital shutdown, did I venture inside to interview co-owner Bill Johnstone. In addition to being a major healthcare resource, he said St. Vincent’s was an “economic engine” for the neighborhood.
Q: Do you think we’ll end up with high-rises and no hospital?
A: (Mentions Trump Hotel on Varick Street.) That’s a real possibility.
Q: How will that impact our community?
A: We’ll have more housing for the very wealthy.
Q: If you left the neighborhood, you’d have trouble relocating?
A: That’s a general problem smaller entrepreneurs are having in New York these days, with or without a hospital. So many people feel sad when stores that have been around a long time are no longer economically viable. You lose something that was woven into the pattern of life.
Q: How would you describe your shop?
A: We have gifts and furnishings of style and whimsy. We are an oddball store. It’s not programmed or set up; you have to do a lot of thinking when you come in here. We have a focus on Christmas and Christmas ornaments—because our public has that focus—and we enjoy being here…We like the ambience of the neighborhood… It’s not a transient experience for us.
Q: You’ve been here 30 years?
A: Almost. (Johnstone and partner Paul Kissel opened Caravansary—meaning an inn, where, in the central courtyard, caravans trade things—when the practice of “layaway” was common: “You put so much down on an object until you pay it off. That’s how women cleaning at St. Vincent’s, with three grandchildren, could afford to buy crystal.”) The idea of relocating isn’t attractive to me, not at this point… It’s a force of economics and the value of space is something I don’t set, maybe the landlord doesn’t set; it’s set by supply and demand and zoning considerations—forces that create a certain amount of change. Lately, change has been rather rapid and devastating.
Q: Because of the loss of the hospital?
A: Also, because the Village has now attracted very large-scale retailers, so that’s put an upward pressure on rents.
Q: Any way to preserve that balance—what people come to your store for?
A: I think that’s why they come to New York: It’s the verve! And I can’t help but wonder—as there are more national chains and more outlets for things that are obtainable almost anywhere else, or we persist in architecture that looks like everywhere else—why people would come here, and then, why would they live here? You’ve destroyed that context that I think is attractive.
(We sang the praises of “Unique New York”—serenaded by a cavalcade of musical toys.)
Q: What was here before you?
A: (Face lights up.) It was the most wonderful store! (STAY TUNED…)
Kathryn Adisman writes about neighborhood places and people. She has lived in the West Village since 1984.