EAST OF EDEN
Nowhere is the spirit of rebirth more potent than the blocks east of the Holiday Market on Westminster Street. Here is perhaps the only place in Providence to find designer jeans (CLOVER), plush hedgehogs and lobsters (HOMESTYLE), sushi (SURA), tapas (FLAN Y AJO), cannabis-leaf print socks (CIVIL), espresso (SMALL POINT CAFÉ), "haute chocolate" (TAZZA), a book (SYMPOSIUM BOOKS), and a bottle of bourbon (ENO) within a few hundred yards."There's a little of everything here," says Rob Babigian, the clothing designer/entrepreneur behind the boutique WHARF (212 Westminster Street, shopwharf.com). You won't find Wharf's suede shoes or blazers anywhere else nearby. That's partly why Babigian opened the store; he was traveling to New York or Boston or going online to buy the things he wanted.
And like other Westminster merchants, almost everything sold is made nearby by people he knows. The Zop Soapworks bars with beach sand exfoliant are made in Rhode Island, Babigian's Wharf-brand shirts are made in Fall River. "Pick a denim brand; they're all friends [of mine]," he says, pointing to stacks and racks around his store. "Rogue Territory, that's Karl. Matt Baldwin . . . makes the eponymous label Baldwin Denim. 3sixteen is Andrew Chen. The Hillside ties and scarves, that's Emil and Sandy Corsillo . . . ."
When Babigian says, "The store is a representation of my entire life experience both personally and professionally," you might remember a possibility obscured by years of shuffling between sterile corporate outposts and eating chemically-concocted cinnamon buns while muzak tinkles overhead: commerce, too, can be a form of art.
Across Eddy Street, the vibe is similarly contagious. "Downtown didn't really have a life when I moved here," says Nori Swennes, manager of QUEEN OF HEARTS and MODERN LOVE (222 Westminster Street, queenofheartsri.com). While customers around her dance to Rose Royce's "Car Wash" and browse "Cocoa Tuberose" and "Hindu Honeysuckle" fragrances by the Providence Perfume Company, she explains how, when she arrived in Providence in 2001, Downcity was a "pit of despair" where "all you could see [were] pigeons fighting over scraps of roast beef for miles." Now, she says, almost everyone who works on the street knows each other and she is constantly waving to friends as she rides on her bike to work.
"It's like working on Sesame Street."
Recent arrivals at Ada Books
The west side of Westminster has already been scoring high on the karma scale lately, thanks to the series of after-school centers lining the street, from COMMUNITY MUSICWORKS to the tutoring center INSPIRING MINDS to the LGBTQ advocacy group YOUTH PRIDE INC.
"It's a great little nugget of good things," says Tamara Kaplan, the interim executive director of NEW URBAN ARTS, the after-school spot — also on Westminster — where students can go to sculpt, draw, write, make silkscreen prints, and develop photographs in a dark room. "We've been calling it the 'Youth Cultural Corridor.' "
But even if you aren't one of the thousands of teens pouring out of Cen-tral, Classical, or Providence Career and Technical Academy on a weekday afternoon, there are plenty of reasons to spin over to this part of town. At WHITE ELECTRIC (711 Westminster Street, whitelectriccoffee.com), it's the lattes, pinball machine, and transfixing paintings for sale on the wall.
If it's later in the day and you're feeling a bit peckish, you'll want to munch baked oysters with creamy spinach and pernod sauce amidst local artist Kyla Coburn's dazzling Art Nouveau decoration at LOIE FULLER's bar and bistro (1455 Westminster Street, loiefullers.com).
And then there's ADA BOOKS (717 Westminster Street, ada-books.com), the bite-sized literary candy store that will make you forget places like Borders and Barnes & Noble ever existed. (Do they even still exist?) The store — peddling the brightly colored BOMB Magazine, graphic adaptations of Homer's Odyssey, and about 6000 other hand-selected titles — feels like a tightly choreographed, maximalist art installation. Atop one shelf sits a strip of sleek, black Library of America collections by Poe and Twain — a rack below, locally drawn comics selling for under $5.
The man who selected the books is the same one sitting behind the counter: New Orleans transplant Brent Legault. And, like most of the shop owners along the street, he is happy to talk about what makes the store the way it is. "This is an expression of my personality, moreso than another bookstore where they might have several employees," he says. You can scour the store, but you won't find a "Business" or "Religion" or "Self-Help" section. Why?
"Because I don't like those kinds of books, quite simply."