Shop Ranking: Inside Miss Lily’s Variety

January 13, 2012

Words by Jesse Serwer, Photos by Tono

Back in April, we shot one of our favorite LargeUp TV episodes at New York City restaurant, Miss Lily’s Favourite Cakes. The place had just opened and, as luck would have it, our cameras were the first to capture the unique energy and aesthetic at partners Serge Becker, Paul Salmons and Binc and Gens Jakupi’s chic-yet-homey, Jamaican patty shop-inspired eatery. In the months since then, Lily’s has become a favorite hangout spot for the Kanyes of the world, lots and lots of models and regular people who enjoy good, Jamaican food, creating one of the most unique social environments in a city full of such offerings.

Meanwhile, a next-door satellite dubbed Miss Lily’s Variety was also being planned. An art gallery and boutique stocked with vintage reggae records and other artifacts of Jamaican music culture, the space—which officially opens for business tomorrow after a few test runs— is also a a high-concept hangout spot that’s home to an Internet radio station, and that happens to be connected to a patty shop and juice bar (Miss Lily’s Bake Shop & Melvin’s Juice Box) staffed by Greenwich Village juice don Melvin Majors. But it’s probably best if we just let Miss Lily’s Variety partner and creative director Matt Goias explain it…

LargeUp: So what is Miss Lily’s Variety?
Matt Goias: The way I always explain it is as a Caribbean record store-themed gallery and boutique. Records are there. Records that look good, but are also good records. But it’s mainly a gathering space. The record store element is the theme for this kind of social club. The idea is to have rotating installations celebrating this extremely rich Caribbean visual vocabulary. In addition to the music and everything else. In addition to the fine art on the wall, there’s affordable art to take home, too.

LU:What are some of the ideas you are looking forward to pulling off?
MG: The first official art show we’re doing is with Maxine Walters. She’s an artist who collects handpainted dancehall signs from around Jamaica. Those signs are just insane, they’re great. We’re doing a show with her, a book and two t-shirts associated with the show.

LU: And clothing is a part of it as well…
MG: We’re making our own line of T-shirts, but we also are selling T-shirts from this British brand, African Apparel. A collaboration we’re doing is with this high-end designer, Jane Mayle. We love her stuff, and we’re doing a little line of bags with her. We have a bunch of T-shirts made but we’re holding some back because the idea is to do these little events, in addition to the art shows, that have merchandise to go along with it. For instance, when we did the Jimmy Cliff event, there was a T-shirt that went along with it. We’re doing a Mr. Vegas Sweet Jamaica event, where he’s going to perform live, and we’re going to make shirts to go along with that. Vegas came to the store a couple days ago, and he instantly “got it.” He saw that we were doing something visually. And he actually asked me to oversee the art direction of the Sweet Jamaica album. He wants us to make his album look like the stuff in our store.

LU: What can somebody buy right now, as far as your own clothing?
MG: We did a shirt that’s a tribute to Tenor Saw. We did one that’s kind of funny with the Matterhorn cigarettes box, which is the Newport of Jamaica.

We did one I have no hopes of selling, but I think people should buy it…it’s a conceptual statement where we took both of the political parties of Jamaica, the JLP and PNP, and combined it so the shirt reads ‘JLPNP.’

LU: Seems like a bold idea…
MG: The standard response I get from Jamaicans is…’Oh my god, this is genius, I would never wear this.’ We didn’t make that many of them but it was this idea I had that would be a funny, conceptual thing to think about for a second.The graffiti artist Love Me made a really nice one we’ll be releasing soon. We have a Tarrus Riley one that we love but we want to do a Tarrus event. My favorite thing in the store, which I wish everybody would buy, are the Goldshop, Impact and Randy’s 45 re-issues. Goldshop and Clive Chin of Randy’s and Impact! fame really have a great eye to what looks good. The Impact! label is one of the greatest logos ever. Clive even picked the right color vinyl to contrast with the label and then he kept the original label Randy’s sleeves with the original 17 North address and phone number on it, and the original Randy’s slogan. They’re great art pieces and artifacts besides even the music which is also great, and they’re 7 bucks. To me that’s the perfect design piece. A $7, beautiful thing that also happens to contain this amazing song on it.

I think this is a new way to think of the music business: We know you’re going to steal the music and we know when you want to listen to this song, it’s easier to search in your Itunes or go listen to it on Youtube than to put it on a turntable. But what was lost in the digital age was this beautiful artifact with the concept of the album artwork, which we love and celebrate in the store. The $7 7-inch is little artwork you can take home that also happens to contain amazing music.

LU: You told me some interesting stories about how you bought the dead stock and second-hand records you have in the store. Would you mind repeating some of those?
MG: I went to quite a few dusty and rat-infested basements and a few dark warehouses. And I even waited for a whole morning lurking outside of Coxsone’s Music City in Brooklyn hoping that Coxsone’s daughter would show up to sell me stuff. Luckily, she did. And I kind of hit a nice jackpot with her. She even gave me one of the original test screens of an early Studio One record that is now my most prized possession.

LU: I didn’t know that Coxsone’s Music City was still there…
MG: Everybody told me Music City was closed, and I thought it did. But I drove over there, and the awning was still up but all the lettering was peeled off and the gate was open three feet. So I crawled under the gate and started banging on the entrance, and I saw that it was still fully Coxsone’s as I remembered it, filled with records. It wasn’t fully stocked but there was a record store there. I saw a pack of cigarettes on the counter so I figured somebody’s there. I crawled back out under the gate, smoked a cigarette and I hung out, and finally Carol Dodd came up to me and I said, “What time do you open?” and she said sometime at the end of next year. And I’m like, “Well, I want to get some stuff,” and she said, “What do you want?” and I said, “Everything you have,” and she started laughing, and then she let me in. I did not get a ton of records from Music City but I got some good ones. But mainly what I got was dead stock from various distributors.

LU: Tell me about some of the people who have come in?
MG: Today, Jude Law. It turns out he’s a record collector and reggae enthusiast, and he bought a good deal of collectible records, most impressively the Jah Screw Herb Base Function album, which we had an original copy of.

LU: What can you tell me about the artistic concept of it…
MG: It’s made to look like an old record store with wood paneling and linoleum floors—but the right wood paneling and linoleum floors and the Serge Becker magical lighting thought. He’s very into lighting. We’ve been looking at these records forever as reggae enthusiasts but when you frame some of these records on a wall, and light them, you really see this graphics vocabulary the average person has never seen before. It’s really interesting stuff visually.There’s people who walk by and it doesn’t scream reggae to the average person. Me and you know what the Studio One logo looks like, so we know that’s a reggae record. To your average person it just looks like some really beautiful stuff. If you are a reggae enthusiast, you come in and say these guys know what they’re doing—it’s the right selection, displayed the right way. I’m very careful to honor these records, to frame them and put them under lighting. The way the store is set up, you see it really easily from the street. It’s a little aquarium—a Jahquarium. I want to show, celebrate and honor the vast library of these records that came out of Jamaica.

I don’t know if this is good or not: I see people walk into the store, of all ages, and they’re looking for a visual point of reference, and they say, “What kind of store is this?” Maybe that’s the worst retail thing you could have, but artistically I like that you have to focus in a little bit. Other than the Kevin Lyons print that’s behind the counter that’s red, gold and green and says Shabba Ranks and Cutty Ranks really big, there’s really nothing that would jump out at you and scream “reggae store.”

LU: Were you looking to open a store or did that idea come once you started working with Miss Lily’s? You’re connected with this vintage Jamaican-themed restaurant that also attracts these A-list type people who would probably never walk into a record store. What’s going on at Miss Lily’s kind of eases them into what you’re doing next door…
MG: A few things came together. It’s not a record store. The records are kind of almost there for decoration but because I’m a perfectionist I made sure there were good records in there. I am not trying to compete with Deadly Dragon. Those guys are so good at what they do, and I am by no means a vintage Jamaican music expert. The minute Miss Lily’s was conceived, the brothers Binn and Genc really pushed to get the corner space to do something with it. I had been talking to Serge and consulting with him and a lot of ideas kind of came together. I had this idea for a store that encourages the art of hanging out like what I did with “The Bench.” Bringing creative together to do cool stuff and keeping it programmed with DJs, art shows, book launches, with constant interesting content… My original thought, years ago, was to have Japanese-style vending. But when [Miss Lily’s] started coming together, it was that idea times a million. They were planning a space that would be activated with creative programming. Now it was everything I dreamed of plus it’s all about reggae, plus there’s a guy making fresh juice and patties in the back.

It’s the ultimate version of all these visions coming together. I don’t think anybody can take any one claim to it. It’s kind of a common sense idea: A creative person’s social club with affordable shit to sell. This one happens to be based on the West Indian community. Today I was talking to these five girls for like an hour about Jamaica. One was freaking out over the JLPNP shirt and that got her explaining to her Bajan friend about the JLP and PNP. And that got the Bajan friend talking about their political system. The Jamaican girl brought up the thing about Bajans treating Jamaicans poorly at the airport. It’s kind of— Serge actually said this— a place to get people together to talk Jamaica. Not just Jamaica but Trinidad, Barbados. At some point we’ve talked about every island. There is a great conversation happening in the space. It keeps taking turns that are better than we thought. In the beginning we were saying we shouldn’t even waste the space on vinyl records, buying records is such a dude thing. Dudes getting together to nerd out about records. Well, up until today, every single sale we made was vinyl records to females. Which shows that we were totally wrong in thinking that vinyl was a waste of space and dude heavy. But Miss Lily’s is kind of known for this girl thing a little bit.

LU: Tell me about the the radio station…
MG: We are in the process of building an Internet radio station. Today we had DJs there. Having the DJ in the window really was magical. It was like night and day. There were crowds forming outside.