Williamsburg design space/artist incubator/Mini brand activation A/D/O still isn’t quite open in full. But its design store—which has lots of great stuff!—is. This includes, on a plinth underneath a plexiglass cover, a rather unassuming little steel vegetable peeler with a certain rough elegance, called a Swiss Peeler. It’s the kind of thing you might have picked up at dearly departed Soho shop Kiosk, though if you’d gotten it there it would have come with an elaborate back story. That’s lacking at A/D/O, which is odd because the peeler actually does have a fascinating New York history. And, by the way, A/D/O is selling it for much more than its usual price.
For many years, the only way to get a Swiss Peeler in New York was to buy it on the street from local legend Joe Ades, who passed away in 2009.
Ades was a fixture at the Union Square greenmarket, and other spots around the city. Called “The Gentleman Grafter” in a 2006 Vanity Fair profile, Ades was a British-born street hawker (“grafter” was his preferred term), who pitched his wares in an English-accented sing-song, always clad in impeccable suits no matter the weather. In pitch after pitch, he made the same jokes, which always drew chuckles (“When you peel a potato, it doesn’t matter right handed, left handed, or like a politician underhanded”), and drew gasps when he used the Peeler to make little carrot stars (“You do that for the kids, they’ll eat their vegetables — they’ll think it’s candy.”). He encouraged everyone who watched him to buy several peelers, to give as gifts; if someone bought only one, he would say teasingly, “No friends, just like me.”
In a lavish obituary, the New York Times rhapsodized about his skill with the peeler, which he priced at $5 and was the only thing he sold.“To watch him julienne a carrot was to witness an act of faintly erotic agility; it was to be wooed,” they wrote.
The peeler itself was described by Vanity Fair like this:
The Swiss-made article is a gleaming frame of stainless steel that fits in the palm like a carpenter’s plane. Joe is the only one in the city who has it—a true boast he saves for that moment in the pitch when he names his price and the wad comes out (in the street game, a moment known as “coming to the bat”). In private Joe says, “The company in Switzerland that makes the peeler will only supply people who can demonstrate the product. There’s a minimum number you have to buy, and the minimum quantity is far more peelers than one store could handle in 20 years. If you saw the peeler hanging up in a store—for a dollar—you’d walk right past it. It has to be demonstrated.”
The company must have made some changes to its wholesale agreement. It’s now available from Bed Bath & Beyond for $5.99, and from A/D/O for more. A shop attendant quoted me $15, or three times what Ades charged, but A/D/O spokespeople clarified that the actual price is $9.
Ades was a real character, and that whole Vanity Fair piece is worth a read. He sold potato peelers on the street in the day, and afterwards would drink expensive champagne at the city’s swankiest bars, like the Pierre. He lived in a three-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue that belonged to his third wife.
“The Shop at A/D/O has an eclectic assortment that showcases design achievement in many categories,” said an A/D/O spokesman in an emailed statement. “We selected that item out of appreciation that great, iconic design can sometimes be hiding in plain sight.”