This month’s West Village Original is London native Nicky Perry, owner of Tea & Sympathy on Greenwich Avenue for over twenty years. In addition to the restaurant, she also owns Carry On Tea & Sympathy, the shop next store that sells all things British. A firm believer in giving back to the community, Perry is also very active in the West Village affairs, including trying to get another hospital to replace the now-closed St. Vincent’s.
As a girl growing up in London, Nicky Perry felt destined to live in New York. “I knew I belonged here years before I came,” she says. “Every time I heard the words ‘New York’ my ears would prick up. I couldn’t hear enough about it. My mum brought me here for my 21st birthday for a week and then—eight months later—I came back on my own with $200 in my pockets. That was 1981. $200 wouldn’t buy you dinner today! But there was no turning back for me.”
The first year she was in New York, Perry went out to dinner with a friend who complained that there were no English restaurants here and she couldn’t get a good cup of tea. “That’s when the light bulb went off in my head and I was obsessed,” she says. “I knew I wanted to open a tea shop, what it would look like, and what I would sell. So I started working in restaurants where I gained experience. By the time I was 31—and just six months after I got my green card—my father gave me £10,000 to open the restaurant. My partner matched the money, my brother renovated it, a friend of mine decorated it, and on December 23, 1990 we opened Tea & Sympathy.”
Happily, the restaurant is still open. This constitutes a bit of a miracle in a neighborhood that has seen most of its long-time restaurants and shops close up. Perry thinks much of her restaurant’s longevity is due to its uniqueness. “I consider myself very lucky because I’m doing what no one else is doing,” she says. “I have a customer base that stretches far and wide. I’m also a small restaurant so that helps. I guess you could call me one of the St. Vincent’s Hospital survivors.”
This last observation leads Perry to expound on an issue that is very close to her heart: the closing of St. Vincent’s. “I am absolutely apoplectic about that hospital closing,” she cries. “It’s unconscionable! This is the third most expensive zip code in America and this is what happens to us? How can we be living in a society where condos are more important than people’s health? It’s beyond belief. That hospital was this entire neighborhood’s livelihood and now businesses are gone and doctors are gone.”
Continuing in this vein, she compares what’s happened to the West Village in general as “living in a world of Pacman.” “All the amazing little business that have been here for years have just been eaten up,” she explains. “We’re the dots and the corporations are the men eating us all alive. It’s like Starbucks or Ralph Lauren say, ‘Let’s munch this block up!’ This raises commercial rents to ridiculous heights, which in turn stifles any artistic expression or risk taking. That’s because if you go into a space that cost $20,000 a month to rent, you have to go into it with a corporate attitude. This will destroy us all. And it will destroy the American dream. You can’t come here with $200 in your pocket and a fabulous idea anymore.”
When asked if she thinks there’s any hope for the West Village, Perry takes a breath. “I think there is hope, yes,” she says finally. “I think there always has to be hope. Things change all the time and you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s sad and it’s disappointing what’s happening in the West Village today, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to stay that way. Nothing in life does.”
And for the time being, she can proudly point to her restaurant and it’s iconic status in the community. “I just love every minute of the business,” she confesses. “I love that it’s different all the time. You never know what’s going to happen next or who’s going to walk through the door. No day is the same and the people you meet are amazing, especially in this neighborhood. People talk to each other here. It’s still very neighborly, which is very British. The West Village is probably the closest to anything here you’d find in England, and certainly London.”
Photo of Nicky Perry by Maggie Berkvist.