Ten-foot butterflies, space ships, and phoenixes rise over Eastern Parkway at the West Indian Day Parade, a Labor Day favorite that draws revelers dressed to the nines. Get there early if you want any view of the spandex-clad dancing damsels that accompany each homemade tinsel-covered float. Soul food, African crafts, and helado sellers line the service streets on either side of the parkway, and traffic halts on all side streets to let the masses promenade. The music – bass cranked to 11 – can be heard for miles.
While Labor Day brings out the giants, the Seventh Avenue Halloween Parade is entirely in miniature. Anyone can enter, and every kid gets his or her chance to walk the double yellow line to the roar of applause. Most stores are open for trick-or-treating, so it’s rare for your spook not to be able to overfill his plastic pumpkin.
A little-known player in a yeast-heavy neighborhood, Lopez Bakery (423 Fifth Ave.; 718-832-5690) offers few yuppie amenities at its slightly fringe Fifth Avenue and 9th Street location. Fans come not for cappuccino or chat, but for the inexpensive, always fresh loaves of bread, available 24 hours a day.
It may not be good, but it’s cheap. Paley Wines and Spirits (88 Seventh Ave., near Union St.; 718-857-7008) offers a $13.75-for-three wine special at all times. Perfect when you want to look munificent, or when a pounding headache is just what you deserve.
Surprisingly Fascist for the Beaux-Arts sweep of Grand Army Plaza, the Brooklyn Public Library (between Eastern Parkway and Flatbush Ave.; 718-780-7810) holds the plaza’s curve with a smooth front facade. Allegorical figures in bronze welcome you to the halls of knowledge. Gilded bas-reliefs along the library’s two slanted sides illustrate different disciplines, with a serious squirrel welcoming children into the kids branch at the back. Inside, the wood-paneled lobby is sliced up by security gates, but the central hall soars. Best of all, it smells like an old-fashioned library: the perfume of dry rot and heating ducts and thousands of file cards.
A sign recently went up in the Community Bookstore’s (143 Seventh Ave., near Garfield St.; 718-783-3075) window: “Due to increased competition (you know who we mean) we remind you of the following” blah blah blah about how they offer 30 percent off New York Times hardcover best-sellers (discount!), a new book club (discount discount!), and a charming café (Anglophilia!) and then the kicker, “don’t forget our knowledgeable staff.” But it’s true. Their selections, in the window, at the front of the store, and in readings, are impeccable; they will recommend books in the nicest possible manner; they let you browse forever. There’s really no reason to walk five more blocks to the wood-paneled facsimile, when you have all the words and caffeine you need at the unsuperstore.
When P.S. 321 (Seventh Ave. between First and Second Sts.) built a nineties playground – giant tic-tac-toe, non-skull-cracking pavement – there were fears that the weekend flea market would have to find new quarters. Luckily these fears were unfounded. The playground railing serves as an impromptu closet for cardigans, leather jackets, fake furs, and faker blouses. The sunken part of the block holds several roomfuls of stripped and sanded furniture. Bureaus, wardrobes, desks, the occasional marble-topped table – nice stuff, with Deco details and curvy drawers, and cheaper than IKEA. Another regular has boxes and boxes of old black-and-whites of Brooklyn to pick through: Everyone can spend $10 to take a little Coney Island home with them.
You can live in Park Slope for a long time before you discover the existence of Polhemus and Fiske Places, one-block streets parallel to the Avenues that cut between Carroll and Garfield. Oases of quiet, these streets act as alleys for the grand brownstones, and give a select few homeowners more than enough space to park their cars. It’s hard not to want to live there, once you’ve found them.
The Slope’s toniest shoppe, the Clay Pot (162 Seventh Ave., near First St.; 718-788-6564), is a cut above in the gift department. Frames that aren’t an impersonal afterthought: delicate glass-bead necklaces; turned, cast and thrown bowls; and all types of fiber arts. Perfect for mom, grandma, and your cousin’s wedding. And for your wedding, the always-crowded room in the back, where they keep the jewels. The Slope is known for its high percentage of couples; those who eschew Tiffany come here for quirky bands.
Don’t bother bringing anything if you move to Brooklyn in springtime. You could furnish a one-bedroom from just one weekend’s stoop sales. Check the lampposts on Thursday, and follow these simple rules. The best sales have computer-generated, rather than handwritten signs, except for those in superb calligraphy (usually architects) which have the best stuff of all. If they are offering sofas, beds, or bookshelves, arrive up to a half-hour before they drag their stuff out the door, and bring a well-built friend. There will always be more toys for sale. My best find: a boomerang-shaped coffee table for $40.