Showdown für die schönsten aller Shops
Storefront – Spiegel Review 8 April 2009
They were the heart and soul of New York City – now it’s closing time forever. In New York, traditional retailers are falling victim to the financial crisis, by the dozen. An enchanting new book of photographs illustrates the history and downfall of these stores, places where each and every shop window was a work of art. By Marc Pitzke, New York.
14th Street was once a prime showpiece. It cuts through the center of Manhattan, separates Greenwich Village from Chelsea in the west, and the East Village from Gramercy in the east. But for some time now this retail street has been deteriorating into a dreary trash alley – a cheap oasis in the heart of a former Bohemian quarter where the cost of the rent has long been unaffordable for the artists and immigrants who once lived here.
It is more wretched now than it has been for a very long time. Walk along 14th Street today and in some parts you have the feeling that you are in a slum, even though only a few steps further along new luxury apartment blocks glitter. Countless stores lie vacant, boarded, barred and plastered with graffiti and posters. The majority of the family businesses have disappeared, the remaining awnings in tatters or stripped back to the crumbling framework. All that remains are franchise chains and fast food shacks: Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, Starbucks.
“Nimbal DVD Paradise” was once a bargain store for imported films, but it no longer exists. Nor does “Dapper Dan”, the smart guy with his retro gentlemen’s suits: instead, tradesmen sit inside the store and there’s a “For rent” sign in the shop window. Across the street, the clothes shop is emptying the last of its shelves, “all shoes $5”. Next door, complete sets of bed linen are piled up on the pavement and watched over by a grim looking African American, the price tag is $5.99 each. “BIG DEAL$” says the garish sign above the door. “Store Closing”.
A city loses its face
The closing down sale of a street: more and more of the old, established retail businesses have been forced to shut up shop, victims of the economic crisis. On 14th Street this is blatantly obvious, but it’s not only here and in the various corners of Manhattan that a similar, silent drama is being played out, it’s all over New York: Lower East Side, Chinatown, Little Italy, Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and even Staten Island.
A city is losing its face. “The list just gets longer and longer,” said Photographer James Murray when he spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the dramatic disappearance of the old style retailers. Murray, himself, lives at the east end of 14th Street and together with his wife, Karla, has photographed this transformation as it happened. “It is extremely sad.”
The Murrays started to document the dying out of the ‘store fronts’ ten years ago. This month their work has been published in a unique book that has suddenly become more relevant and meaningful than intended – an obituary of a New York that is being irretrievably destroyed.
60 years of making salami
At the beginning, it was the usual problems that occupied the storeowners: rising rents, local bureaucracy, family succession, demographic change. In the meantime, however, the crisis has well and truly ensnared both them and their customers: credit has become unobtainable, people aren’t shopping – and if they are it’s only in the big chain stores. This recession has hit small retail businesses the hardest.
These small ‘mom and pop stores’ though, (the equivalent of Germany’s Aunt Emma stores), are precisely what differentiate New York’s street and cityscape – they are the genuine soul of this metropolis. Often overlooked by tourists craning their necks to see the skyscrapers, these small family businesses have shaped the lives of the locals for decades.
Katz’s Delicatessen, one of the city’s most famous food stores, has been in existence since 1888, looks the same today as it did 60 years ago and created its advertising slogan during the Second World War (“Send a salami to your boy in the army”). Since 1903, “Lichtenstein & Co.” has sold sewing and tailors’ wares on Delancey Street. The zinc façade of “Emey’s Bike Shop” on 17th Street dates back to 1900.
Service, even on public holidays
Many are anchorages for migrants, places where they can speak and hear their mother tongue and procure goods and food stuffs from the homeland, ‘ethnic’ items that can’t be found at the large, nondescript department stores. “When these stores have gone,” write the Murrays, who interviewed numerous proprietors and managers for their book, “the entire neighborhood will be under threat.”
The “Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery” has been baking pastries using an old Romanian “Knish” recipe since 1910 – these pastries are virtually impossible to get anywhere else. “Russ & Daughters”, whose specialty is kosher dairy products, opened at the same address in 1914 – today it is the last business of its kind on the Lower East Side. “C. DiPalo’s Latteria” in Little Italy has been hand-making mozzarella seven days a week since 1925.
“We do just about everything to serve our wares to our customers,” says Brian Schames, who, as the fourth generation of a Russian immigrant family, manages the paint shop “M.Schames & Son” on the Lower East Side. And he is very serious about this claim: the Schameses personally deliver cans of paint to the customer’s house whenever the customer wants it, be that weekends, evenings or public holidays.
The first cappuccino in the USA
The legends that are attached to these stores are as much a part of New York’s history as Union Square, Greenmarket or the Staten Island Ferry. Next door to “Jimmy’s Stationery & Toys” in Brooklyn the teddy bear was invented, and it was named with the blessing of President Teddy Roosevelt. The USA’s first cappuccino was made at “Café Reggio” in the Village, which opened in 1927.
But the decline was underway before the recession started. The rise in property values in these quarters drove many away. Modern residential blocks, sporting halls, sun studios and office towers have taken their places. Only those who owned the buildings they occupied did not have to fear being driven out, such as the well known “Strand” bookstore on Broadway.
Others fell victim to small print. New hygiene regulations banned the hanging of smoked ham in shop windows and this spelled the end for “E. Kurowycky & Sons Meat Market” in the East Village, as well as many other small butcheries. And, for quite some time now the city authorities have refused to renew permits for old Neon signs – signs that cannot be replaced in any case because they are no longer produced. The optical trademarks of many stores are disappearing before our eyes.
The end, after 83 years
After 83 years in business “Gertel’s” bakery closed in 2007. The “2nd Avenue Deli”, which opened in 1954, survived the murder of its founder, Abe Lebewohl, but not the latest rent increase in 2006. It made a comeback in 2007 and is now located in Midtown East on 33rd Street, a displaced curiosity. The legendary Times Square restaurant “Howard Johnson’s” fell victim to a rent increase in 2005.
For the Murrays, who chose to work with a 35 mm film camera, it was a challenge to keep up with the destruction of the rough patina of store windows and facades. Almost a third of the businesses they photographed disappeared before they had written the foreword to their book. “In the meantime it’s almost half,” says James Murray. “The appearance and atmosphere of whole neighbourhoods have changed, as well as their individuality and charm.”
Those who have fallen victim since Storefront published include the fifties coffee shop “Ideal Dinettes”, the “C&N Everything Store” in the Bronx (1956), the “P&G Café” on the Upper West Side (opened 1933), and the butchery “B&B Meat Products” in Brooklyn, where on display in the shop window there was a plastic pig dressed as a cowboy.
Nevertheless, photographic pair, James and Karla Murray, refuse to lament the situation. “Instead of seeing the glass as half empty,” says James, “we try to see it half full.” With their book they want to open peoples’ eyes to what is being lost in these quarters, “…and encourage them to support the stores, perhaps even help save them.”
For the “Rite Aid Pharmacy” on Seventh Avenue, however, it’s already too late: even though it belongs to a large concern this branch was always run like a neighborhood store, a store where pharmaceuticals and toiletries were cheaper and the service more personal than across the street at the soulless, chain store pharmacy “Duane Reade”. For two years now “Rite Aid” has been losing money, and as the products are emptied from the shelves they are no longer being replaced. Outside, above the broken Neon sign, hangs the same sign as everywhere else in this quarter: “Top retail space to rent.”