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The African Shop in New York City

[ NEW YORK, NY - NYC - 5/24/2002 - www.Littleviews.com ]

Nyabinghi's African Shop reopened in January 2006, after being closed for almost four years.

To find out more, read Authentic African Antiques in New York City.

The African Shop's current address is 166 Church Street (on the corner of Chambers Street), New York, NY 10013. Call 212 791-1443 for hours.

>>  He lost his lease and you are about to lose a treasure.

Nyabinghi, a community elder and owner of a large, African import shop, sold traditional African crafts in Harlem, Brooklyn and now Downtown Manhattan on 111 Chambers (near Church Street) for over 30 years.

African man statueHis current shop on Chambers Street is fronted by two huge showcase windows. Both windows hold so much captivating treasure that going from the sidewalk to the inside door can take ten minutes or more, even though you're only walking 12 feet. Best, the shop's interior looks like a museum workroom; half exhibit and half storage.

Scholars regularly interview Nyabinghi for background information on exhibits and courses on Africa. Reporters from all major media outlets consult him on these subjects as well. Unfortunately, most of this will change on June 30, 2002. Nyabinghi's knowledge, of course, will remain as exhaustive as ever. What will be lost is the convenience of finding him in his shop and seeing his treasures under one roof.

New York City is filled with import shops, many with reasonably priced merchandise. Because of low prices and obvious high quality, imports once filled the apartments of college students and new households. Today, many items that were once considered common are now only found in museums and in the homes of collectors. Consequently, seeing a collection today as extensive as the one in the The African Shop is very rare.

As cultures around the world merge, unique skills disappear. This means that if you see things you like, especially those found in collections that began to be imported in the 1950s and 60s, buy. Once home, marvel over your treasures and the resourcefulness of the people who made them. Then thank the universe that you've been so blessed.

That said, I am an antique basket collector. Normally, when browsing shops like this one, I consider every woven product on the premises. During my most recent visit, however, I struck up a conversation with a friend of Nyabinghi's; an older man with snow white hair and marvelous, wrinkle-free, pitch black skin.

African FemaleWhen I asked how he kept his skin so youthful looking, he replied that his secret was sold here. Then he fiddled around the checkout counter, digging out a big lump of Shea sap. "This," he said "is what I use everyday," referring, of course, to what he had at home.

Cosmetics shops sell Shea sap as "Shea Butter." The African Shop, however, sells it in its natural state; a stiff, non-greasy yellow lump that has a pungent, earthy odor. I purchased a more refined version that combined Shea Butter with Somalie Rose oil ($7). And my review? Non-greasy Shea is perfect for quickly (if not instantly) curing chapped lips and weather-related chaffing.

Seeing that I was interested in African-produced skin products, Nyabinghi recommended a Nigerian Dudu-Osun Black Soap ($4). He said that despite its deceptive color, its high sudsing power made it popular. Best, in Africa itself, no packaging is necessary because the product is gathered as needed from the sap of Camwood trees that conveniently grow by streams.

The box of the soap I purchased looked like it had been on the shelf for a while. It definitely is not what you'd normally see in a cosmetics or country herbal shop. The handcrafted soap itself was about 80% molded in an oval soap shape, with additional sap packed around the edges. Those edges look like hand scooped, black ice cream.

TribeNo matter what its shape, this marbled, dark brown and black soap smells great. Washing with it initially produces light brown soap suds that within a few seconds explode into a thick, near-white lather that is denser than liberally applied shaving cream. My face felt exceptionally fresh after rinsing. Highly recommended!

My purchases aside, when you visit New York, make an effort to explore import shops, especially those that are a bit rough around the edges because so much merchandise is stuffed inside. Talk to the importers whenever possible. Ask questions. Be curious. And buy as many amazing things as possible. In some cases, this may be your last opportunity ever to do so.

Until the end of June 2002, The African Shop is opened 11 to 7, every day at 111 Chambers (near Church Street). For more information, call 212 566-3336. After that, look for Nyabinghi at New York City street fairs.

Karen Little

Article and photos by Karen Little. First published on 5/24/2002. All rights reserved by www.Littleviews.com.

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