the brooklynite

A Bonsai Tree Grows in...
By Erica Brody

“IT’S INFECTIOUS,” said bonsai enthusiast Paul Snider, who bought his first dwarfed tree five years ago at Bonsai of Brooklyn, a stone’s throw from Avenue X. Snider was back on a recent Saturday, this time for two Fukien Teas, his sixth and seventh bonsai trees. Gazing longingly at a 200- to 300-year-old bonsai, Snider said his wife would kill him if he bought the $1,000-plus mountain juniper.

Luckily, Bonsai of Brooklyn proprietor Paul Graviano has some 300 bonsai to choose from, most more modestly priced between $20 and $300, as well as thousands of containers, figurines, books, videos, soils, fertilizers, and tools—from finger rakes to branch benders and grafting knives.

“It’s been a big, big part of my life, and I’d like other people to share it,” said Graviano, 62. “It’s a very rewarding hobby.”

Graviano’s devotion took root in 1964 when he purchased a Dwarf Japanese Juniper and blossomed at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden as a volunteer under the tutelage of Frank Okamura, then-curator of the largest bonsai collection outside of Japan. Since then he has become something of a local go-to guy for all things bonsai, and has shared his expertise through workshops, planting demonstrations, and appearances on cable television.

“A lot of people think that a bonsai is a specific kind of tree,” Graviano said. “It’s not.” That’s evident from Bonsai of Brooklyn’s offerings of temperate and sub-tropical bonsai: Dwarf Sawara Cypress, Japanese Maple, Korean Boxwood, Brush Cherry, Thousand Star Serissa, and Schefflera Arboricola, among others. What makes a bonsai a bonsai—and not a full-fledged tree—is the way it’s grown: using minimal soil in a small container that curtails root growth, with regular pruning and pinching.

Graviano, who has worked at jobs ranging from door-to-door Bible salesman to being a presser in a dress factory, entered the bonsai business selling the plants in flea markets. In 1976 he opened Bonsai of Brooklyn on Kings Highway. Eight years later, he moved the store to Gravesend, across the street from the house he shares with his wife, Rebecca. Eventually, he opted to run the business out of his home. (His old shop remains open under different ownership and the slightly altered name Brooklyn Bonsai.) And while Graviano greets customers with appointments warmly, those reluctant to make the trip will find everything they need—including advice—on his Web site, which boasts up-to-the-minute pictures of stock and ships internationally.

The native Brooklynite, who blends his own soil using a cement mixer, cares as much about the art of tending bonsai as he does about selling them. “We get people sometimes that want a $400 or $500 tree,” he said. “I do everything in my power to talk them out of it. I don’t want them to make a mistake, but, more importantly, I don’t want to see them killing a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old tree.”

Graviano’s advice for the newbie? “It’s kind of like the first-car syndrome. When I was a kid, when you were ready for your first car, your father would usually take you out to the neighborhood junkyard and buy something for 30 or 40 dollars, believe it or not…. If you didn’t kill yourself or anybody else, usually your parents would get you something a little better. It’s the same thing with bonsai. It’s better to start with something small and inexpensive, see how it goes, and once you’re comfortable with that and you see that you’re doing well with it, then you can step up.”

Bonsai of Brooklyn, 2418 McDonald Avenue, Gravesend (F to Avenue X), 917-325-3954, visits by appointment only,

Erica Brody is a contributing editor at the Forward and a frequent contributor to ARTNews.

4W Circle of Art & Enterprise
Visitors to this Fort Greene boutique/women’s art collective are greeted by a complimentary pot of piping hot cider. But that’s not the only surprise they will find. The Afrocentric, handcrafted wares for sale at this friendly Fulton Street store include masks, jewelry, clothing, candles, toys, books, holiday decorations, greeting cards, and wedding gifts. There are cowrie-shell-encrusted pottery pieces, as well as champagne flutes etched with a Ghanaian adinkra symbol representing God’s omnipotence. 4W, named for the four African-American women who founded it nearly 15 years ago, is busiest around Black History Month, Mother’s Day, and Kwanzaa. Details about events in the store—including readings and workshops on quilting, beading, and playing the shekere (a West African rattle fashioned from a bead-covered gourd)—can be found at 704 Fulton St., Fort Greene (G to Fulton; C to Lafayette), 718-875-6500.

BQE Pet Supply Store
This isn’t your typical pet supply store, although its shelves are stocked with just about everything one needs to care for a cat or dog. What makes BQE unique is that it gives its proceeds to the folks next door: the Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition. And with its no-kill policy, BRAC isn’t your average animal shelter. Since 1987, the nonprofit has cared for abandoned cats, dogs, and the occasional rooster until homes are found for the animals or they die of natural causes. Pet lovers know that when they buy a bag of Max Cat or a flea collar at BQE, they’re not just looking after their own pet, they’re helping to keep the animals next door alive and well cared for. 253 Wythe Ave., Williamsburg (L to Bedford), 718-486-7489.

The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co.
Home of capes and capers, the quirky Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. has shelves lined with everything the well-equipped superhero needs to vanquish villainy: wall-scaling suction cups, vanishing powder, chain ladders, and cans of “sidekick” (available in girl or boy). “If we don’t have it,” a sign declares, “a superhero doesn’t need it!” The shop is little more than a (store)front and money-raiser for 826NYC, a drop-in tutoring center for local kids accessible via a “secret door.” The volunteer-driven center is the newborn sister of San Francisco’s 826 Valencia, the writing center/pirate shop brought to life by the staggering geniuses behind the literary journal McSweeney’s. The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. also offers seminars for (grown-up) aspiring writers. The neighborhood has welcomed its new resident enthusiastically, with more than 800 applications from eager potential volunteers filed to date. 372 Fifth Ave., Park Slope (F, M, or R to 4th Ave.-9th St.), 718-499-9884.

Gowanus Nursery
Spring is fast approaching, and the crocuses will soon be pushing their way up, as they are wont to do—but only if someone plants them first. Which means it’s once again time for the green-thumbed, the green-minded, and even the green gardener to start prepping and pruning their plantings—be it for the soil of a much-envied garden or a collection of pots on a fire escape. (The Shopper urges readers to abide by city fire codes!) A half-block from the eponymous canal, this seasonal nursery reopens in late March and boasts unusual annuals, perennials, and shrubs. Popular offerings include eryngium, catmint, and the hard-to-pronounce kirengoshoma. 102 3rd St., Gowanus (F or G to Carroll), 718-852-3116.

Jacques Torres Chocolate
This Dumbo chocolate factory purrs “glorious,” “quaint,” and “perhaps another dozen.” Jacques Torres, who refers to his employees as “oompa-loompas,” handcrafts his chocolates without preservatives, which is admirable. But it’s the way his creations melt sensuously on the tongue that created his cadre of devotees (and a new lower Manhattan offshoot). Signature chocolates (a box of 12 costs $13) include Heavenly Hazelnut and Bando Breeze, a marzipan and apricot-paste concoction coated in dark chocolate. Offbeat selections round out the offerings: chocolate-covered corn flakes and fortune cookies ($10 for a takeout box of six). The chocolatier’s recommendation? “Get Wicked Hot Chocolate to fall in love, Passion Chocolates to stay in love, and Body Butter to do something with your love.” The handful of tables in the store tend to be full, but hot chocolate pairs well with a riverside stroll. 66 Water St., Dumbo (F to York),718-875-9772.

M&I International
A visit to this Brighton Beach food emporium can result in ADD-type symptoms, with attention drawn in competing directions by an astounding array of cured meats, cold cuts, caviar, breads, cheeses, pickled everything, and all-things-Russian canned and jarred. Staples such as tvorog (farmer’s cheese), salmon roe, and kielbasa abound. Whether you’re stocking up for a soiree or drawn by the food of your forebears, you’re unlikely to leave empty-handed. The store’s upper level offers cafeteria-style seating for diners with a menu featuring everything from borscht and blini to vareneky (savory dumplings) and desserts. Separating the two tiers is a temptation island of colorfully wrapped candies, honeys, and stunning pastries. 249 Brighton Beach Ave., Brighton Beach (Q to Ocean Parkway; B to Brighton Beach), 718-615-1011.

NCH Studios
For those brave enough to opt for a wedding-registry alternative, trying to find a housewarming gift, or searching for something special for their beloved, this charming shop packed with artist-made wares offers many possibilities. There are stained-glass-framed mirrors, pottery for all occasions, hand-blown glass vases, candelabras, chimes, purses, and cedar jewelry boxes—and hundreds of earrings, rings, and necklaces to fill them. There’s even the perfect Brooklyn-themed gift: a lamp with a Brooklyn Bridge shade. The kindly shopkeepers always seem delighted to help their customers choose from the creations they offer, made by some 300 artists. 201 Court St., Cobble Hill (F or G to Bergen), 718-694-0809.

Sapateria Mexico II
If your inner vaquero, or Mexican cowboy, yearns for outward expression and a new outfit, search no longer. Just a block away from the green mound of Sunset Park, this unassuming zapateria (shoe store) offers up rows of modestly priced men’s cowboy boots, as well as horse-embossed belt-buckles, embroidered shirts, and leather belts. There’s a smaller line for the cowgirl-minded gal—daintier, high-heeled leather boots with subtle white trim. And for tinier feet, there are children’s leather shoes in a mixture of styles. To top it all off, $40 buys a 100 percent wool cowboy hat. But this shop is no poseur—an amiable salesperson could field a recent shopper’s questions only en español. 4505 Fifth Ave., Sunset Park (R to 45th Street), 718-851-4074.