Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York
By James T. Murray and Karla L. Murray
Corte Madera, Calif.: Gingko Press, 2008
336 pages + 4 fold-outs, 12 x 13 inches, 220 color
illustrations, $65 hardcover
Reviewed by David M. Guss
Somewhere a formula must exist to determine the proper size of a sign in relation to the distance and speed of the person viewing it. Of course, Venturi, Brown, and Izenour speak about buildings that “can be comprehended at high speeds.”1 And everyone is familiar with the large disembodied 40-foot-high sign set beside a highway with the store it announces a distant pillbox set behind acres of asphalt parking. These buildings are typically windowless with no displays of merchandise reaching out to attract the customer. They are meant for cars and not pedestrians, the
opposite of what James T. and Karla L. Murray spent eight years documenting in their magnificent new book, Store
Front: The Disappearing Face of New York. The Murrays became interested in this project while traveling around New York to document the work of graffiti artists. Two resulting books, Broken Windows-Graffiti NYC (Gingko 2002) and Burning New York (Gingko 2006), stood out for the laborious stitching together of photos that allowed them to present entire walls without any of the obstructions that frustrate most photographers. They also included lengthy interviews with the elusive artists responsible for the tags, pieces, and throw-ups. It was while visiting these sites in every corner of the city that they became aware of another type of wall, just as expressive and personal—the store fronts of ‘mom and pop’ businesses, passed down from one generation to the next. Yet these stores were suddenly disappearing in the epidemic proportions of a species die-off. Of the 220 pictured in this over sized volume, a full third have already closed.
The Murrays set out with the same preservationist zeal that had inspired their graffiti project. But graffiti by its nature is an ephemeral form destroyed as much by rival artists as by government authorities. The storefronts that populate this book are anything but ephemeral. They are the glue that has held these communities together, distinguishing one neighborhood from another. The real estate boom of the last decade or so has dramatically
changed this. The single story Cheyenne Diner, for example, which sat at Ninth Ave. and 33rd Street for 68 years, is
being replaced by a nine-floor condominium. Everywhere, gentrification and escalating rents are forcing these small
family-run businesses to close. Of course, there are other factors as well—competition from chains, city regulations
and rising costs, new ethnic groups with different tastes, and new technologies and lifestyles that make some businesses less pro?table. Only one bookstore, for example, is featured,
the Strand, the last survivor of Book Row. And like most of the survivors, they own the building, a refrain heard over and over.
But owning one’s building is more than a hedge against displacement. It’s a long term investment in the community,
resulting in a loyal network of customers that often goes back several generations. Here’s how Novil Seward, co-
owner of the C & N Everything Store, located in the Bronx for more than 50 years, described it:
I’ve been in this neighborhood so long that I’ve watched many of my customers grow up and now some of them
even bring in their grandchildren. I know most everybody by name and I treat all of them like family. One of the
biggest things happening in this neighborhood lately is that there’s a lot of new construction. I don’t know who
can afford the rents they are charging. Most of these new buildings are empty and you’d think the owners would
lower the rents instead of them staying empty but I guess they’d rather leave them unoccupied. If we didn’t own
this building we would have been out of here long ago.
The relation to one’s customers is just as palpable in the windows and signs on the front of these stores. To read them demands intimacy. One can’t view them enclosed in a car traveling 60+ miles per hour. Each storefront is a visual poem which the viewer stands in front of like a canvas. Some are orderly, like the butcher shops with their sausages and hams hung in neat rows from one end to the next, or the Italian bakeries with their loaves of bread stacked as evenly as boards in a lumber yard. Others, like Strand Television in Queens and Chun Lee Fabrics in Chinatown have covered every inch of window space, their products threatening to burst out into the street. Some have created museum-like dioramas such as Pretty Decorating and Love Saves the Day, both on Second Avenue in the East Village. The densest though are the candy and news stores whose windows are busy collages of information and products, the store turned inside out where public and private meet. At the other end are the bars such as the Lenox Lounge in Harlem where Bird and Miles used to play.
These have big neon signs with cool enamel and stainless steel panels, and odd-shaped windows that only hint at what might go on inside. All of them invite you to come close, not simply to look at the products, but to read the many notices that have been taped up: menus, reviews, news clippings, sales, family photos, seasons greetings, and even a wanted poster with a police artist’s sketch at Joe’s Dairy in Little Italy. And sometimes there are editorials for the community, intimate messages like the handmade sign in the window of Raul Santiago’s candy store in the East Village, “Odio las drogas y amo a la Vida”: “I hate drugs and I love life.”
What makes this book so special though are not simply the breathtaking photos. The Murrays have also provided interviews with many of the shop owners. With an ethnographer’s ear, they elicit what it means to be local and to run a business in the same location for several generations. A number of establishments such as Katz’s Delicatessen and
McSorley’s Old Ale House are well over a hundred years old, and one, Lichtenstein & Co. Woolens and Tailor Supplies, can trace its origins back 500 years to North Africa. The connection to the “Old Country” is an important part of the identities of these stores which have often been centerpieces of new immigrant communities. Whether Polish, Hispanic, Italian, Jewish, Caribbean, or Chinese, they helped bridge the distance between these two worlds. This is one of the interviews’ recurring themes, especially when the store sells food. Recipes are treated as jealously guarded heirlooms traced back to the family’s village of origin. As Robert Esposito, third generation owner of Giovanni Esposito & Sons Pork Shop says about his store: “We are known for our homemade Italian sausage, made from a family recipe almost a century old. Sausages are like handwriting. When somebody tries to copy them, they just don’t come out right.” And Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery doesn’t just sell potatoes and kasha wrapped in dough. They also produce a stomach-soothing yogurt “made from the same culture brought over from Romania in the late 1800s.”
Like Berenice Abbott’s 1930s WPA Federal Arts Project that documented a “changing New York,” the Murrays have also provided a tour of the city at a time of rapid transition.2 In fact, both Abbott and the Murrays photographed the
same Italian bakery at 259 Bleeker Street— A. Zito & Sons—which closed in 2004 after 80 years in business.
Unlike Abbott, however, who photographed every aspect of the city, the Murrays’ map is constructed through storefronts alone. “These storefronts,” write the Murrays in their short introduction, “have the city’s history etched in their facades. They set the pulse, life and texture of their communities.” They also dramatize the city’s remarkable diversity and the role of local businesses in making people feel at home. And yet, oddly enough, there are few people in any of these stunning photos. There are also no cars, no rain, and no snow. The weather is always perfect, and the busiest city in the world is eerily quiet. It makes you want to approach each store and press your nose against the window to find out just what’s going on inside.
Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour.
Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of
Architectural Form. Cambridge: MIT Press. Revised edition 1986.
Bonnie Yochelson. Berenice Abbott: Changing New York. New
York: The Museum of the City of New York. 1997.
David Guss is the Chair of the Department of Anthropology at
Tufts University where he has taught since 1991.