Harlem-Based Giftshop MoonLab 42 Celebrates Cross-Cultural Creativity

The tiny Hamilton Heights storefront is an ode to couple Ruso Margishvili and John Holden's Georgian-American roots.

Brandee Sanders
December 13, 2023

Married entrepreneurial duo Ruso Margishvili and John Holden, the creators behind the Harlem-based concept store MoonLab 42, are firm believers that the power of creative arts can strengthen communities. They've witnessed it through their family's art shop in the hillsides of the country of Georgia, and it became ever more present during the global pandemic when they set out on a mission to create a project that amplified and celebrated artistic freedom when things felt restricted.

What started as a pop-up shop showcasing the work of Georgian and New York City-based creatives at Harlem's Lucille's Coffee & Cocktails has emerged into a whimsical brick-and-mortar store nestled in Hamilton Heights. The satellite store, inspired and influenced by their Georgian-American roots, may just be five-feet wide, but its global flair is expansive. The walls and shelves are lined with vibrant art prints, unique candles, locally made soaps, and other one-of-a-kind finds; trinkets that give a lens into an array of cultural identities and creative passions. It's an intentionally curated visual marriage of products from Georgian and New York City artists and makers. MoonLab 42 has also become the backdrop for neighborhood gatherings.

We spoke with Ruso and John about the vision behind MoonLab 42, the importance of amplifying the work of local creators, and their suggestions for Uptown holiday shopping.

What is the origin story behind MoonLab 42?

Ruso: I come from the country of Georgia. In 2019, my family started a concept store in my hometown of Tbilisi—the country’s capital—called 42. 42 was the number of the apartment building where I grew up. The store emerged as a space for workshops, gatherings, and cultural events. Creatives from Georgia would use the space to showcase their work, teach, read poetry, and lead other artistic activities. The front of 42 was a coffee shop that housed a little art shop filled with a lot of local goods.

Even though we were based in New York City, my husband John and I were quite involved in sourcing a lot of these Georgian-made goods and connecting with the artists. We were heartbroken when the business shut down during COVID. It was hard to watch our friends—both in Georgia and New York City—not be able to profit as much as they could from having their work in art fairs and retail shops. We decided to pick up the torch and celebrate their work by curating a pop-up shop to keep the spirit of the original shop alive during a time when everything seemed so limited.

What is the inspiration behind the name MoonLab 42?

Ruso: John has always dreamt of making candles. During the pandemic, I suggested we explore candle making since we were stuck in the house. We both had day jobs and worked long hours, so by the time we were able to focus on making candles, it would be midnight. We had a running joke that our apartment was like a midnight moonlit laboratory; that’s where MoonLab is derived from. The number 42 is an homage to the origins of our shop back in Tbilisi.

Can you share how you're infusing your Georgian-American roots into the business?

Ruso: For us, it’s through carrying the work of Georgian artists. We love presenting their pieces to a wider audience here because Georgia is such a small country. MoonLab 42 is a way for their creativity to reach a wider audience. We have a lot of New York City-based friends who are printmakers, illustrators, and sculptors. We’re also able to carry their work. We’re fusing our backgrounds together into one shop. The shop is also an opportunity for me to talk about my culture and background because many people don’t know that a country called Georgia exists. This is an opportunity to introduce this very old country to the local people and talk about very ancient traditions and the contemporary art world.

Harlem-based concept store MoonLab 42. Photo credit: MoonLab 42

Can you talk about the importance of having spaces like MoonLab 42 to amplify the work of local artists?

John: We’re very fortunate to be able to be the mom-and-pop shop that we are. Just by being so tiny, I think it creates an ideal setting for people to connect. The gatherings at our shop are always diverse. We’ll have grandmas from the block who have lived in this community for most of their lives coming in and celebrating with us. We’ll have people who are new to New York stop by. We’ll have students. We’ll have longtime Uptown residents. We’ll have people coming from other boroughs to come hang out. To have such a diverse array of people come together and make connections whether it’s for their art or creative endeavors or just celebrating the essence of what New York is—one of the most diverse cities in this country—I think is really beautiful.

To have such a diverse array of people come together and make connections whether it’s for their art or creative endeavors or just celebrating the essence of what New York is—one of the most diverse cities in this country—I think is really beautiful.

What do you want your customers to walk away with after stopping by MoonLab 42? What kind of experience do you want to curate?

John: My goal is whenever someone comes into our tiny anomaly of a storefront, I want them to feel welcomed. I want them to feel like they’re escaping from the craziness that can sometimes be happening in the world. I try to engage and make everybody feel like it’s a place that they’re meant to be.

Ruso: John and I are both very pro-in-person shopping. Especially today when there’s such a convenience of buying things online; it totally changes the culture of shopping. There’s less browsing and curiosity with online shopping. We want MoonLab 42 to be whimsical and memorable. With all of our products, we want to keep things affordable while also ensuring our artists are paid fairly.

We want MoonLab 42 to be whimsical and memorable.

What are some popular holiday gift items at MoonLab 42?

Ruso: The Fort Candle that John and I make at home has been extremely popular now, so we’re cranking out candles and shipping them out for the holidays. We also have a lot of demand for everything from incense to art prints made by New Yorkers. We have unique ceramic pieces like little cups and bowls, and soaps and body washes created by a Harlemite. We carry unique pieces from Georgian artists who are not selling elsewhere but in our shop. There’s a lot of diversity in terms of the types of gifts.

John: The candles are something the two of us collaborate on and it’s always been a staple in the shop, whether it’s the sculptural ones or the traditional jar candles. Postcards are always something I suggest because unlike a greeting card that oftentimes gets thrown away after that initial occasion, it's nice to have a little art print that has a secret note on the back. Another popular product in the shop are these really cool enamel pins from one of our Georgian contributors.

MoonLab 42's Fort Candle. Photo credit: MoonLab 42

What are some Uptown-based small businesses you'd suggest shopping at during this season and all year round?

Ruso: One is NiLu, it’s a little shop on Lenox that carries a wide range of African American products. There’s a wonderful Black-owned coffee shop that also sells home goods on Amsterdam and 144th called Oma Shop.

John: Word Up Community Bookshop which is a co-op bookshop that’s been around for a while is a nice locally owned option for holiday shopping. If you're looking to grab a bite to eat between shopping, I have to hype up Lucille’s which is also where we got our start. In the daytime, it’s a café with really good food, coffee, and a great atmosphere. At nighttime, it switches to dinner, and drinks, and they also have live jazz a couple of nights a week as well as fantastic pizza. The Japanese restaurant Chopped Parsley is also a great option for a unique holiday dining experience. The owner, Yumika Parsley, is a one-woman show. 

From your perspective, what makes Harlem a unique neighborhood?

John: Harlem is special. From my perspective, it’s a very diverse community and we’ve become friends with so many people through not only being residents here and operating the shop, but frequenting some of the other small businesses. The neighborhood has such a rich history. We have really iconic landmark buildings up here. It’s a really beautiful part of the city.

Ruso: There’s a real sense of the neighborhood coming together as a community. Everybody knows everybody. People have spent a lot of their lives in the area. They all know their neighbors. They’re very welcoming, very warm, and very supportive of each other. That’s the kind of energy that we build on.

Visit MoonLab 42's website and follow the shop on Instagram.


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