Sunday, November 12, 2017

Business of the month La Sirena 27 East 3rd Street

Some small shops pack so much energy they seem to flow out onto the sidewalk, into the street, and across the neighborhood and beyond. On East 3rd Street is one such place where year-round holiday lights adorn an A-frame sidewalk sign with mercados (market bags) and papel picados (paper confetti flowers) hanging out front, and a wall of colorful shirts and vestidos (dresses) beckon you to enter.  Located in the East Village/ Lower East Side Historic District at 27 East 3rd Street (just west of 2nd Avenue) is La Sirena opened over 17 years ago, and this Cinco de Mayo is our latest Business of the Month.
Enter La Sirena
Longtime local East Village resident Dina Leor is the proprietor who first opened her shop for a few months on Avenue B.  A former art teacher at Bellevue, she was already selling items on St. Marks Place and promoting her at-home daycare business when a partially vacant storefront inspired her to open her own shop.  Her love for Mexican art, culture and folklore has continued to deepen over almost two decades and her well-curated shop reveals this passion.  She is also a card-carrying member of the NYC District Council of Carpenters, having plied that trade for a number of years some time ago.
Dina Leor owner of La Sirena with our Business of the Month decal.
The store is a jam-packed with items of all colors and sizes and tastes. From Guadalupe candles to sombreros, aprons to bracelets, you’ll also find plates and box art and t-shirts and a few beaded iguanas still available. Frida Kahlo can be seen on metal hearts or in box diorama art.  A light air of sage wafts through the shop.  La Sirena marries kitsch and seriousness with a deft balance.

All kinds of people visit La Sirena, which means mermaid in Spanish. Dina’s love for the ocean accounts for the melodic name.  Local residents and customers with a list of names to buy gifts for, restaurant owners and families having a fiesta all shop there.
Some come straight from the airport. One woman, wearing mostly beige when she entered the store, spent some time shopping and by the end of her visit was wearing a cape and a Luche Libre mask of the sort wrestlers don in the ring.  Many New York City locals of Mexican heritage come for select items especially around holiday times, from Día de los Muertos to Cinco de Mayo.  Dion has seen some folks come in and weep upon seeing the array of items brought from various parts of Mexico; for many, to be able to buy something familiar for their family or loved ones, especially if they have not been able to go home for many years, is an emotional and rewarding experience.

Dina usually visits Mexico every year and has personal relationships with many of the artisans whose work she carries.  One such woman is Josefina Aguilar from Ocotlán, in the state of Oaxaca, who makes ceramic ensemble figure pieces.
Some of the work of one of the artists, Josefina Aguilar.
Like many small shop owners, it is Dina’s passion that has allowed her to survive and thrive for almost two decades. She is dedicated to doing what she can to draw attention to the traditions of Mexican Folkloric art. Plus she doesn’t spend much money; most of it goes to more art and crafts.  Often she cannot see it, however, because her inventory accumulates bit by bit. But when repeat shoppers come some months later, she has heard them say “O my goodness, you have so much more stuff!”  Her items range form $2 to $500 with something for everyone of every age range.
But don’t expect to buy a pinata with the visage of anyone famous; that type of energy is not what this store is about. But everyone is welcome, whether it’s Cinco de May like today, or any other day.  And since May is Lower East Side History Month, it is a perfect time to visit La Sirena.
A “bolsa” or bag.
What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. #shoplocalnyc  Each month we will pick one person who sent in a nomination to win a book from our collection. So nominate a favorite local business today!

And here is a handy map of all our Businesses of the Month:

Friday, July 21, 2017

Step inside this living altar to all things Mexico in the heart of NYC

Our Lady of Guadalupe reigns here.
It’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed when you step inside La Sirena. Located in New York City’s East Village neighborhood, the tiny store reminds me of a kaleidoscope, with its endless stream of colors. As El Grito approaches (the September 16th celebration of Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1810), I stepped inside this magical world, dedicated to the beauty and culture of Mexico.
My eyes don’t know what to focus on first. A long string of ornaments hang along a wooden shelf to my right – everything from clay birds to a heart with the image of Frida Kahlo on it. Small skeleton figurines fill an entire bookshelf to my left – there to honor the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos. Singer/songwriter Lila Downs plays in the background.

A peek inside Dina Leor’s Mexican folk art store.
There are knickknacks everywhere, it seems, most of them from Mexico - with dips into Peru and Guatemala.
Though the shop is small, owner Dina Leor maneuvers around it like a pro. After having the same location for 13 years, anyone would.

Fun figurines honor the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos. Peep the super sexy pink-wigged skeleton with her cigarette and major cleavage.
After she opens the store, Leor begins each workday by hanging bags for sale outside. There are several religious candles by the doorway, which she bends over to light.
Leor gingerly places a vase beside the candles. Filled with red roses, it’s a gift for Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“She’s my sweetheart,” she says of Mexico’s patron saint, known in Spanish as La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Peep La Virgen de Guadalupe; Leor’s sweetheart is sprinkled throughout La Sirena. Her, and the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
Leor was a burnt-out teacher before she opened La Sirena. During that time, she says nothing would revive her like Mexico would - which is probably why Leor’s friends call her shop a “living altar.”
“I’m actually Argentine-American with a Mexican heart,” she tells me with a smile.
And after Leor tells me her story, I believe it.
As a girl, Leor’s Argentine parents would take her to Mexico almost every summer. She loved the country deeply – so much so that she almost ran away once. She really wanted to stay there.
“I still cry on the plane coming home,” she says. It’s a love that remains - Leor used to travel several times a year to Mexico to relieve stress, as well as to shop for folk art.
No one has stepped inside the store yet, so as Leor continues to set up, she goes into detail about her love for artisan work, which stems from early childhood. Leor grew up making art with her paternal grandmother; they would make quilts, clay and mosaic pieces together.
“My fire and passion for creativity started with her,” she tells me. Leor’s grandmother passed away when Leor was eight.
“That closeness that I feel in Argentina and Mexico, I had with my grandmother,” she says.

These papier-mâché plump mermaids (or “sirenas gordas”) come from Guanajuato, Mexico. “There are a lot of mermaids in Mexican culture and folk art and, obviously because my store is called La Sirena, I’m always seeking them out,” Leor says.
Leor has traveled far and wide in Mexico for art’s sake – Oaxaca, Puebla, Mexico City, and Michoacán are just a few areas she’s purchased work from. The coast of Oaxaca, for example, has beautiful textiles, Leor tells me. Most of the wares Leor sells at La Sirena come directly from the artisans who make them, and in other cases, wholesalers of folk art.

One word - Frida.
Over the years, the owner of La Sirena has become friends with many artisans. One of her favorite artisan families is the Aguilar family, a group of sisters and one brother who reside in Oaxaca.
Leor tells me about the family’s great grandmother, who looks as though she’s pushing her 90s. “She’s up there,” Leor says.

The elderly woman, who was sanding a piece of pottery, initiated the family’s folk art. Nearby, her daughter-in-law worked on a clay figurine as she gave milk to her baby.

“I feel like it’s a natural evolution of life – the folk art and the life is all one,” Leor says. “It’s not like you go to school and learn it… you learn it at home, which is so beautiful.”

These traditional dolls hold a place in many Mexican childhoods, Leor tells me. “I call them las muñecas aztecas - the Aztec dolls,” she says.
As Leor speaks about Mexico and the closeness of artisan families there, my mind jumps to the concrete jungle that is New York City – a place where, in many ways, you’re on your own. Survival of the fittest, if you will.

I ask her what she feels the differences are between both Mexico and NYC. There’s a bit of hesitation at first.

“Culturally, we’re very individualistic,” Leor says carefully. She goes on about how many families here are more separated.

La Sirena owner Dina Leor loves her some Mexico.
When she used to visit Argentina, Leor hated returning to New York.

“My family in Argentina would all have lunch together every day and we’d go pick up the grandparents to have lunch with us,” she recalls. It was very warm. People would have their disagreements, of course, but Leor believes it’s a healthier environment to grow up in.

Our conversation shifts to La Sirena’s merchandise. I ask Leor which is the store’s most popular item. It’s hard to say, she points out, but t-shirts and Mexican lucha libre are daily sellers.

The above “nicho” (or decorative box) was made by an artist named Alejandro, from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, who likes using sayings in his work. This one reads “My past belongs to the devil, my present is mine, and my future belongs to God.”
During our conversation and Leor’s tour, several customers step inside the tiny shop - all on a mission. One woman stops by in search of Mexican wrestler figurines - they’re a gift for a boy. Another customer comes in search of a traditional Mexican dress, the kind with intricately embroidered roses along the collar. Leor herself wears a traditional Mexican blouse that day - she calls it her “uniform.”

A La Sirena customer feels a package of Mexican lucha libre figurines before deciding to purchase them.
Even if Leor feels down, La Sirena brings her spirits up.
“I always feel good in here,” she says.
Despite the joy it brings to others, La Sirena’s days are numbered. Leor tells me her landlord raised the rent 42 percent – a price she can no longer afford.
While she figures out her next move, Leor’s focus has begun to shift to a dream she has always had; creating a cultural space that would be the home of art classes, gallery exhibitions, and language exchanges. It just depends on finding the right space, and, of course, the financing. Leor says she might start a Kickstarter campaign for this — the culmination of all her dreams — but nothing has been decided yet.
“I feel like it’s the universe saying, ‘Okay chiquita, it’s time to move on,’” Leor says, in reference to the store’s rent hike. She claps her hands for emphasis.
But whatever happens, Leor maintains that she still loves what she does at her tiny shop at La Sirena.
“It makes my heart sing.”
(Photos: Amaris Castillo)