My New York Obsession

My New York Obsession: The Mysterious and Addictive Aisles of Ricky’s

Just like many New Yorkers themselves, this singular beauty-supply store is not what it appears to be.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

I am a vain person with complicated hair. I’d like to believe these are not my defining characteristics, nor even among the top five. But they do exert a disproportionate influence over where I spend my spare time and money. If I have 20 minutes to kill, I’m far more likely to find a place to sample eye creams than drink an espresso. Whereas I’m largely indifferent to jewelry, my pulse spikes over silicone-free hair serums.

Ricky's NYC
Over the moon, over the rainbow. / Photo courtesy of Ricky’s/Facebook

This habit does not make me proud. It makes me happy my spouse and I keep separate bank accounts. I am gripped with nerves whenever I buy something at Sephora, fearful the cashier will too loudly announce the number of points I have, one’s number of points correlating to the number of dollars one has spent. Accumulate enough points and you achieve something called VIB status (VIB standing—incompletely—for Very Important Beauty Insider). Accumulate even more and you are anointed VIB Rouge. I have earned so many VIB Rouge points that I’ll be able to pass the honor down to future generations. 

And while, clearly, I love Sephora, I do find it a bit antiseptic. The employee uniforms seem made to resemble a lab coat, if it was designed by a nun. It’s all quite tasteful and orderly and exactly the same no matter where in the world you find one. Even the telltale black and white shopping bags are stark and linear. 

What one gets at Ricky’s is the anarchy, humor, and high-low mix, and that reflects New York City at its best. Like many New Yorkers, the exterior does not reveal the depth within. 

Far more inviting is the New York City beauty supply chain Ricky’s. The shopping bags from Ricky’s are a garish blue plastic and feature the store’s logo of a bulging, spewing tube of toothpaste (at least I think it’s toothpaste, but it really could be anything, from hair gel to lube). But don’t be fooled: The lowbrow aesthetic, not to mention the tacky tagline (“Looking good, feeling good”), is no reflection of what awaits inside the store. Though you can find an infinite range of affordable cosmetics supplies, Ricky’s also carries some of the highest-end hair products on the market. What one gets at Ricky’s is the anarchy, humor, and high-low mix that reflects New York City at its best. Like many New Yorkers, the exterior does not reveal the depths within. 

Ricky's NYC
Hair today, gone tomorrow (sorry every day about that joke). / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

The first Ricky’s opened in downtown Manhattan in 1989. In news stories, the company’s founder, Ricky Kenig, has said his early clientele drew from typical downtown residents at that time: drag queens, hair and makeup artists, and fashion photographers and stylists. In an era before Amazon, access to products like neon wigs, fishnet stockings, and professional hair-care tools wasn’t as easy to come by. In addition to imported grooming aids, salon supplies, feathered boas, and rows and rows (and rows) of false eyelashes, Kenig hung a ’70s-era beaded curtain at the back of each store, behind which he stocked vibrators, handcuffs, and other sex toys.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

In a 2013 article, he recalls, “It was the funniest thing in the world to see a customer buying a shampoo, a toothpaste, and a dildo.” As Ricky’s stores spread around Manhattan, you could find the same downtown mood even on the Upper East Side, whether you were looking for glitter pasties or a $500 hair dryer.  

Though I do half believe a single product can change the course of my life, I also just like browsing. I like the packaging, the bottles, the jars, the jugs, and colors and sizes and fonts and innovations and the promise of all these things.

Over the years, I have found this to be an addictive, if costly, convenience. I can spend a truly alarming period of time casing the aisles and contemplating the difference between one Japanese leave-in conditioner versus another.

Ricky's NYC
Some very literary shampoo. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

And though I do half believe a single product can change the course of my life, I just like browsing. I like the packaging, the bottles, the jars, the jugs, and colors and sizes and fonts and innovations and the promise of all these things. To be sure, my appreciation more often than not results in an acquisition, but I also love to look. In the same way people like scouring stationery stores even if they don’t plan on writing an actual, physical letter ever again, I like Ricky’s. 

Ricky's NYC
Here lies the anarchy, humor, and high-low mix that reflects New York City. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

The only time I don’t like it is around Halloween. In the fullest expression of its campy origins, the store gives the weeks prior to the October holiday almost entirely over to costumes. The products I adore get tucked behind superhero and sexy nurse getups. Ricky’s always has a touch of the gaudy, but at Halloween, it seems less directed at people who embrace it earnestly and more toward those who do it once a year as an amateur. Ricky’s may not be snobbish and exclusive, but I can’t help it: Sometimes I want it all to myself.  

Read on for what else has us obsessed with New York.