In an awkward distance of just a few feet apart, the two Maison Gerards form a doubling that echoes Ovid’s story of Narcissus, which makes them utterly unforgettable, and even fascinating, to a curious stranger.
The Narcissistic Maison Gerard
Eskandar, Hostler Burrows, Prelle, Maison Gerard, O’ Sullivan Antiques, Plain English Design, Maison Gerard, Brittany Hall. Except for a few unnamed residences, these are all the facades along the length of one block, from number 33 to 55, on East Tenth Street, in Manhattan. Read the list carefully and you may encounter a slight yet strange sting in your mind the same way I did when I first paid attention to these names on my way back to my dorm. Something was off, and before I realized it, my feet had instinctively gone back a few steps. The next moment, I was walking back and forth between number 43 and 53—thankfully no one found me suspicious—just to make sure my memory did not trick me. The conclusion was, as weird as it seems, that there are indeed two Maison Gerards on this street. Having the same golden words printed on the same French windows, the two antique shops from the same owner stood not far enough from each other for disassociation yet not close enough for unification.
When Narcissus exclaims to his reflection, “I stretch/ my arms to you, and you reach back in turn. I smile/ and you smile, too. And often, I’ve seen tears/ upon your face just when I’ve wept, and when/ I signal to you, you reply,”1 it is implied that the essence of Narcissus’ reflection lies in its persistent repetition: it repeats every movement its fleshy counterpart makes. Correspondingly, the essence of Narcissus lies in his reflection as well, as he indulges so much in his own beauty that he devotes his whole existence to the doubleship with his reflection. Such an interdependent, inseparable, and ultimately interchangeable relationship between Narcissus and his mirror image is recreated in the two Maison Gerards. Walking into the two spaces, I was instantly struck by how consistent they were with each other: a repeated crowdedness of decors welcomed me in both instances. Artworks were simply everywhere: Walls overflowed with visual art pieces and mirrors, ceilings filled with lights and chandeliers, and the rooms fully occupied by all sorts of chairs and tables, leaving merely a narrow path for visitors to move around. Both shops’ approaches to aesthetics were identical as well. Not only did they both focus on European Art Deco furniture but also contained a mixture of contemporary and historical pieces of design. Talking to a worker at the shop, I was informed that the two Maison Gerards were not meant to be distinguishable from each other in the first place; the only reason they opened up a second storefront was that they contained too many items that having an extra space became necessary. In fact, the two spaces were mirroring each other to such a high degree that they perform everything simultaneously. As I learned from the shopkeeper, designers, exhibition proposers, and clients always visit both spaces together, and the people at both Maison Gerards had never even considered the two storefronts to be separate. Just like Narcissus and his reflection in the water, the two Maison Gerards—described by the worker as “really just one gallery in two physical spaces”—were essentially one entity presented in repetition.
Nonetheless, repetition does not equal exact duplication. In the tale of Narcissus, Echo was a character who can only repeat what others say, which naturally makes her a double of Narcissus. However, when Narcissus shouts “Do not touch me!/ Don’t cling to me! I’d sooner die than say/ I’m yours!” and Echo mimics him by responding “I’m yours,” her restatement of Narcissus’s words does not produce the same message but on the contrary, changes the original meaning into something brand new.2 Parallel to Echo, the repetition in the two Maison Gerards as well deviates from precise replication and instead, prompts distortion and transformation. Despite sharing the same origin and developing at the same pace, the two storefronts involuntarily display certain differences. Number 43 has a bigger storefront and a smaller interior. On the other hand, number 53 has a smaller storefront but a bigger interior. Moreover, while number 43 is more noticeable on the street and therefore, appears to be more important to outsiders, number 53 is actually the main gallery with the majority of staff members locating their offices there. This further resembles the doubleship between Narcissus and Echo: Narcissus appears to be more independent as he has autonomy over his speech. Yet he is in fact more captivated because of his self-obsession. On the other hand, Echo appears to be more dependent, as she lacks the freedom of speech. Yet she is in fact omnipresent because of her self-separation: her lack of a self allows her to be anyone. With this being said, although both pairs of doubles stem from repetition, variation nevertheless grows from such mimicry. While the repetition secures the similarities between Narcissus and Echo, the inescapable distortion allows them to complement each other but at the same time contrast with one another, which strengthens their own idiosyncrasies. Just like the two characters, the identity of one Maison Gerard is the result of a shared experience with its double. In other words, in the case of both Narcissus and Maison Gerard, one of the doubles makes the other’s s identity possible through the distortion in repetition.
Having both similarities and differences between themselves, the two Maison Gerards can correspond to either Narcissus and his reflection or Narcissus and Echo. However, what truly draws the connection between all three pairs is the omni-absence of physical touch. There is something special and meaningful about touch. Unlike all the other human senses, such as vision and hearing, touch is the only perception that is direct to one’s physical existence. Touch is also reciprocal, as one can not touch without being touched. In all, touch equals relation, which explains why Echo desires to touch Narcissus, Narcissus desires to touch his reflection, and the two Maison Gerards desire to physically unite as well. Yet Narcissus and Echo are separated by the former’s reluctance, Narcissus and his reflection are separated by a thin surface of the water, and the two storefronts are separated by a building made of concrete bricks. Such a ban on touch is, therefore, also a ban on relation, a prolongation and intensification of longing. As Narcissus can not touch his reflection, he cries out, “Let me still gaze at one I cannot touch;/ let sight provide the food for my sad love.”3 Similarly, the workers at two storefronts of Maison Gerard visit each other quite frequently, like a tender gaze one Maison Gerard casts upon the other. In fact, the workers’ duties overlap so much that they have to come together in one of the two spaces almost on a daily basis, almost as intense as the pull of Narcissus’ gaze. Just like Narcissus caressing his own reflection with vision, the exchange between the people of the two spaces becomes the only way for the two storefronts to make contact. Yet this can never fulfill the need for touch in either case, as it does not bring them physically closer in any way. Both the double in Narcissus’ story and Maison Gerards are defined by the fact that they are doomed to be infinitely close and yet infinitely far away from each other.
By alluding to the famous doubleship between Narcissus, his reflection, and Echo, the twin shops of Maison Gerard easily stand out from all the other spaces on East Tenth street. The exclusive spiritual connection between the two storefronts, accompanied by a tragic touch of physical separation, forms Maison Gerard’s own personality. The bittersweet nature in all doubleship—the coexistence of similarities and differences, and that one is forever approaching but never reaching the impossible unity with his other self—is what grants the two stores a sense of humanity and a space for imagination. As such, under the context of Narcissus’s tale, Maison Gerard itself becomes a piece of art, echoing all the fine art decors it exhibits within. According to Maison Gerard’s website, what builds its reputation is its collection of French Leleu. However, what truly allows them to leave a mark on one’s mind, is the moment that a stranger notices its name twice on the same street.