By Meg A. Parsont
In 2012, when Sylvia Parker saw the For Rent sign on the front of the store at 488 Amsterdam Avenue (between 83rd and 84th streets), she realized it was just what she’d been looking for. A former book editor who had worked in the gift shop of the American Folk Art Museum and who had started up the gift shop at the South Street Seaport Museum, she’d always dreamt about opening her own shop. This space had everything she could have asked for, including, most importantly, a great location with neighboring stores that had been there a long time. (It’s on the same block as Darryl’s boutique, Eddie’s Bicycles, Franklyn’s Barbershop, and Alachi Masala restaurant. West Side Kids is just up the street.)
Ten years later, Magpie has become a go-to gift shop for Upper West Siders and beyond. Many out-of-towners make a pilgrimage to the store when they are in town, and as one long-time customer says, “It’s the kind of store where I go in to browse, and I always end up buying something.”
It’s not surprising that Magpie has built up such a loyal fan base. Its beautifully curated shelves and display racks (many of which are handcrafted from salvaged driftwood by Sylvia Parker’s partner, Kyle) are laden with treasures, with an emphasis on stylish eco-friendly, sustainable, and fair-trade goods. Many of the items are created by local artisans. From organic cotton baby onesies to barware and cocktail glasses to vegan leather bags, Magpie truly carries something for everyone. Parker notes, “I want there to be a great choice for people. We offer everything from little items for fifty cents to high-end throw pillows.”
Among the objects she and her staff are most excited about this season are elegant glass bowls, pitchers, and bud vases from Sobremesa by Greenheart, a company that partners with fair-trade artisans around the world. Also in the housewares section is a colorful display of tea towels from The High Fiber made from repurposed flour sacks that Parker discovered this summer at a farmer’s market in North Carolina.
When asked where she and her staff source the goods they stock at Magpie, Parker explains, “When I’m traveling, I always keep my eye out for somebody who might be doing something interesting.” She adds, “We all love vintage from flea markets and thrift shops, which also gets thrown into the mix at the store.”
Magpie is fully stocked for winter with scarves, hats, and gloves and an eclectic assortment of Christmas ornaments you’re not likely to see anywhere else, enticingly displayed on a repurposed picture frame that had been salved from the street. A random sampling of other offerings includes vintage and vintage-inspired jewelry, tiny glass hearts (sticker price: .50), and small batch chocolate bars from Fruition and animal welfare-approved milk and dark chocolate caramels from Big Picture Farm in Vermont.
Reflecting on the trends she’s seen since the start of the pandemic, Parker notes that people are looking for things that are comforting: lots of scented candles, soaps, pillows, and beautiful things for their home. Puzzles and old-fashioned games are also doing well. She stayed in the city during the pandemic, although she had to close the shop for a few months. “When we first re-opened—around Father’s Day—I was bringing cards to the door so people could look at them. It was the only safe way we knew how to be open. Later we let in two to three people at a time, and people were willing to wait. It was incredible.”
It’s this personal connection that makes all the difference both with Magpie’s customers and vendors. Sylvia Parker initially met Daniel Durkin at a stationery trade show and now the Brooklyn-based artist personally goes to Magpie to deliver new batches of his greeting cards. The shop carries a selection of his holiday cards featuring New York landmarks and often, birds.
Of her staff she says, “I couldn’t run the store without these amazing people.” Each one brings a unique perspective to Magpie: Melise Oskardeslar is a jewelry designer, Mary Louie has worked as a fashion designer, Kayla Moser used to work at ABC, and Josephine Phillips, whose daughter was Parker’s first employee, is also an event planner. They each advise her on the selection in the store and also have input into the music playing on the sound system, which is as eclectic as the goods on the shelves!
When asked about the origin of the name of her store, Parker explains, “Magpies love to bring shiny things back to their nests. They also represent good fortune in Chinese culture.”
Contemplating the past ten years, Sylvia Parker says, “Just when you think it’s going to be all about online shopping, people are enjoying being able to come in and see things and touch things.” She adds, “Magpie continues to surprise me. I’m always learning new things. I am very grateful to be in this neighborhood and feel like it’s a real community, including all our wonderful customers and neighbors.”