The other day I returned to my old neighborhood, the Upper East Side, and was pleasantly surprised to see a new store, only two weeks old, that belonged to the luxury cosmetics and soap company Sabon, its ninth store in Manhattan, at 1276 Lexington Avenue, a few feet south of the subway at 86th Street. The store has three other locations outside Manhattan, including in Garden City, N.Y., and in Chicago and Schaumburg, I.L. Although it looks in the main like most of the other Sabon outlets in the city, to me it is easily the loveliest of all. It is not the rustic feel of the two tones of woods, paler and rougher-hewn at the summit, dark and smooth along the rest of the street-front, that makes it so appealing, nor the sweet smell of lavender and patchouli rising amid the general foetor of this stretch of Lexington Avenue.
Rather what is so delightful about this place is the jarring realization that it is there at all. Having spent some 16 years in these parts (I moved to the Upper West Side two years ago) I remember it as being just about the seediest stretch of Lexington, an avenue that has many shifts of charm and quality as it heads north from Midtown: the glamour around Bloomingdales in the low 60s and the high-end gentility of the Ethan Allen show room and some high-end florists in the Upper 60s and early 70s.
Things get a little dicey around Lenox Hill Hospital at 77th Street before returning to charm amid the antiques shops for a few blocks north of 79th Street. But around 86th Street, long one of the uglier parts of the city, this area had long been a magnet for greasy eateries and shoe repairs. The present shop rises over the ghosts of a Dunkin’ Donuts (from long before the brand became hip again) and a nearby Ameritel mobile phone shop. These two spaces were combined to form the new Sabon.
What is the cause of this sudden transformation? For the first time, with the arrival of Sabon and the Little Brown Chocolate Bakery on the north east corner of 85th Street, the place is starting to look downright genteel. The main cause, of course, is the arrival of the Lucida, which occupies the entire east side of the avenue, from 85th to 86th streets, not to mention the Brompton, in the same position on Third Avenue. Those two buildings have cast an air of glamour over the entire area for several blocks in every direction. It has taken several generations for this redemption of 86th Street to materialize, and it is still ongoing, but the new Sabon outlet is proof that it is already well on its way.