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Claire Lemétais on Turning a Gallery Into Spiritual America

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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.

All photos by William Chan

If the Lower East Side's Spiritual America feels like an art gallery, there's a reason. In the fall of 2011, Claire Lemétais opened the store in the former home of the Thierry Goldberg Gallery at 5 Rivington Street. Since then, she's spent every season filling the pint-size boutique with brands like Surface to Air, Loeffler Randall, Wendy Nichol, and more, along with medical romance paperbacks for decoration.

Did you always want to open a store, or was it something that came about when you decided to move your gallery?

It's been a project for me for a few years. I had the gallery here, but it was always a project of mine to do a store as well since I was always into fashion as much as art. It's kind of like the same approach to the way I curate the shows—I choose the designers in the same way I select an artist for a show at the gallery.

What made you pick this location and neighborhood for the gallery?

Before we moved the gallery, we used to have a space in Chelsea. We opened the gallery here just before the New Museum opened, and before all the other galleries moved around here, too. So we were one of the first and it was kind of very scary at the time to do that move, but it turned out to be really good.

And when you took the gallery to Norfolk Street, you turned this space into the store. How did that come about?

Well, it's very interesting how the neighborhood is changing and how it's evolving. When we first moved the gallery here, there wasn't that much going on. Just Freemans—they really kind of made the block. Now, there are a lot of galleries, but we felt that we needed a much larger space to be able to show what we wanted to show. I was looking for a space for the store, and I was looking at other locations, but I really liked this block. It's kind of a destination, but it still gets really good foot traffic. It's not too out of the way but it's still a special block, like a small little destination.

When you think of your customer, who do you see?

We have a wide array of customers. We have a lot of really good, regular customers who live in the neighborhood and they've been really supportive and very excited to have a store here. They're like the Lower East Side girl who lives around here and is aware of all the designers we carry. But then we also get a lot of very hip Europeans who come and stay in the hotels around here. They love to shop in small boutiques like this and find designers they don't see everywhere else.

How do you go about picking your merchandise? Do you know what brands you're always going to stock, or does it change each season?

Because the store is fairly new, it's definitely evolving in that way. So, of course, when I first opened there was a set of designers I always wanted to carry. And as it goes, I'm always looking for new, undiscovered things, and I always try to find new, interesting designers.

What's your favorite item in the store right now?

That's a tricky question. There's a lot.

All of the jewelry in this case is really great.

These bracelets we do amazingly well with. They're from Giles & Brother, and even though it's a line that's been around for a while and a lot of people know it, it's one of our most popular jewelry designers here.

And then these earrings are very interesting. They're from Andy Lifschutz, who's a new designer and who's not selling in that many places actually. He's using bronze, which is kind of unusual because everybody's using brass. For these earrings, he casted an old vintage French leather bag, and with all different pieces of that purse he made different pieces of jewelry. He made necklaces, earrings— these here have the imprint of the leather texture.

On another note, where did you get all these vintage nurse paperbacks?

When we opened the store, we just bought a whole box of those books, I think on eBay or something.

Do you sell them?

People are always asking. People want to buy them all the time, and so far I've said no because I really like some of them and want to keep them. We thought about starting to sell them and just get more.

What's your overall philosophy on pricing?

We try to have a range. It goes up to $1,000 or a little bit above. $1,200 would probably be the highest price point we have right now, and then the jewelry could start around $60 or $70. But the average for most items would be around $300 to $400.

There are so many designers I'd love to carry, but because of the price point I'd have to think about it. In the future, I think the price point will definitely go up a little bit, but we'll still have lower priced items too. I definitely want to introduce some higher-end designers.

Okay, time for the lightening round. 1960s, 1970s, or the 1980s?

The '60s.

Mad Men or Game of Thrones?

Definitely Mad Men.

Mustard or mayonnaise?

That's tricky, but I'd have to say mustard.

Jay-Z or Kanye West?


Beach or the mountains?


· Spiritual America [Official Site]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]