Rhinestone Pigs Leave the Building

John Gotti, notoriously stylish as he was, never craved a rhinestone piglet. For years he walked past Charles’ Place at 234 Mulberry Street, on his way to and from his Ravenite Social Club, “but he never patronized us,” Charles Elkaim, the shop’s owner laughs. Now the former Ravenite is a snazzy shoe store and, after 18 years on the block, Elkaim is packing up his dinosaur necklaces and monkey ear bobs and bejeweled bat bracelets and closing next week.

When Charles’ Place opened, there was a parking lot across the street and FBI agents regularly cruised the neighborhood, which for decades had been known as Little Italy, the Nolita moniker being far in the future. Word of mouth and articles in places like Le Figaro and Japanese Bazaar spread the news about Charles and his hand-made creations—no one can set a garter on a miniature Betty Boop’s thigh like Elkaim—turning his shop into a destination for quirky collectors.

Once Charles’ Place looked out on a parking lot. Now the lot is gone, replaced by an upscale fashion boutique and a quiet, tasteful Ricky’s (which is, for all its dark wood shelving and a sign that reads “natural for the mind, sprit and complete body,” in the end just a Ricky’s). Elkaim and his wife, Yvette, who, in their 41 years of decorating animals, have built a fan base that includes Jade Jagger, herself a jeweler, say they will operate their business over the Internet, but one worries—when asked for their Web address, they confess they don’t have one yet.

In the end, there are few things sadder than a special little shop closing. “It’s a nightmare,” Elkaim sighs. “We’re even getting rid of our beautiful cabinets.”

And indeed, it is a nightmare—one we feel a tiny bit responsible for, if only because we were initially enthusiastic about the shifting retail landscape in Nolita. Our pulse always quickens when new boutiques open, and because we are possessed of a particularly slow learning curve, it never really sinks in that inevitably these darling shops will gobble up grocery stores, shoe repairers, and quirky one-of-a-kind holes in the wall that sell cartoon earrings.

That said, we aren’t all that upset to find that the gigantic Salvation Army at 69 Spring Street has vanished. Not being particular fans of Sally Ann (we never find the great things others seem to turn up) it takes us a minute to realize that it has been replaced by a place called Pylones. We are immediately taken with a kitschy faux-vintage souvenir pillow in the window, hand embroidered with scenes of Paris, which is actually just the sort of item lots of people manage to find at thrift shops for, like, $7. Alas, this one is a depressing $150.

We are ashamed by the rapidity with which we fall for the whimsically-patterned French sugar bowls, toasters, radios, flasks, ash trays (the French still smoke), and other goods rendered in dazzling, high gloss baked enamel. Given the fact that they flaunt cow-skin spots, hallucinogenic bubbles, and other designs not usually found on common household items, the prices—a toaster is $69—seem quite reasonable (especially when compared with a $150 cushion).

But not all the frankly silly merch is costly. A mermaid bottle opener—didn’t know you needed this?—is $24; the frog tape dispenser—another must have!—is $14, and the perfect summer house gift, the twirling spaghetti fork—yes! Bring this and of course you’ll be invited back!—is an extremely palatable $12.


Goodbye to Charles and His Place

“This is a piece of history,” says a gleeful teen shopper, sliding on one of Charles Elkaim’s crystal cocktail rings he sells at his shop, Charles’ Place. “This is my favorite store,” she gushes, eyeing racks of Elkaim’s handcrafted costume jewelry like candy. Elkaim avoids disappointing her with his recent news; due to a raise in rent, he’ll be closing up at the end of May. The 18-year-old fixture of Nolita is the latest casualty in the struggle of small-business owners against encroaching Pottery Barns and Banana Republics.

Walk down Mulberry and you might’ve been curious about this store, its window crammed with teeny-tiny figurines made into earrings and necklaces, bold cocktail rings, and carefully handwritten signs informing window-browsers that there’s a native French speaker on site. Elkaim, the son of a skilled seamstress mother but with no formal training himself, came to America 50 years ago from French Morocco. A quick study, he started his own business after a brief stint under whimsical shoemaker Steven Arpad. His crystal and bead embellishments on shoes and purses gained him the attention of Lord & Taylor and Saks, where he sold his wares that he created in his showroom on Fifth Avenue. The late ’50s and ’60s was one of the golden eras in costume jewelry, and Elkaim’s bold bracelets and rings of vintage Swarovski crystal and Bakelite regularly graced the iconic covers and spreads of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. His creations were the ideal accompaniment to everything from a classic ladies’ suit to Paco Rabanne’s risqué dress of see-through plastic paillettes. Jackie Kennedy was even a fan, occasionally stopping by his former shop on Bleecker.

Recently fashion magazines have featured both his large baubles (they go perfectly with today’s Roberto Cavalli, Baby Phat, or Heatherette) and the jewelry Elkaim crafts from little miniature animals and people. In his shop you’ll see singing mice and little pigs dangling from earring hooks, and milkmaids and mailmen glued inside gold hoop earrings. He sells them not as a set, but per earring. “I don’t want to impose on people to wear the same. It gives them the chance of showing their personality,” he says.

Elkaim has a charming answer to every question you ask him, and his move to selling itty-bitty collectibles goes like this: “I used to have a tiny store, so when I put big things in it, it filled up too quickly. So I said, ‘That’s it, I go to miniatures.’ ” These he crams into his store along with vintage Bakelite jewelry, his Swarovski costume pieces, dime-store stickers, and erasers; a “Love is Wonderful” rubber elephant receives just as much counter presence as his one-of-a-kind, crystal-encrusted peau de soie cuffs. “I don’t like one or two items. I like to fill it up. Then when people come, their eyes are like this,” he makes a goggle-eyed face, “and they say ‘It’s too much!’ ” For Elkaim, it’s these reactions he’ll miss the most: “I guess I can do it from the Internet, but I love so much to be in contact with the people. I like to see them come in here, with a big smile on their faces. It’s the best reward I can get from this business.”

Lilliputian chic
photo: Corina Zappia

Mom’s credit card surrendered, the teenage girl models her new cocktail ring. “Will you sign it?” she elatedly asks Elkaim. The man whose work has graced a gazillion fashion spreads over 50 years is only too happy to oblige, beaming like this is his very first customer.