`Store Front’ documents retail face of NY City
By TED ANTHONY, AP National Writer Ted Anthony, AP National Writer
“Store Front: the Disappearing Face of New York” (Gingko Press, 336 pages, $65), by James T. and Karla L. Murray: Overly affectionate accounts of days gone by make up an entire genre in America these days, part of the general shift in the past generation from future-focused optimism to nostalgia-laced longing.
You see it in paeans to roadside America, to lost highways and long-forgotten attractions. Most of it is unabashed ode. Rarely, though, do you see an account that zooms in on a chunk of the American landscape — what was, what is and the hint of what may be — and manages to be both lyrical and documentarian, elegant and decidedly anthropological.
That’s exactly what awaits when you crack open “Store Front,” which at nearly 7 pounds is a mighty volume that functions as a visual catalog of New York City retail architecture and all the stories behind it. This is an appealing, unmatched tale of individualism and the tapestry of entrepreneurial zeal, all wrapped up in brick, mortar and colorful signage.
The Murrays, authors and photographers, traveled from neighborhood to neighborhood in New York City — Manhattan and the outer boroughs alike — and set their camera up squarely in front of facades they deemed worthy of chronicling. What emerged is surprising and delightful. Among the storefronts revealed:
_The now-defunct Jade Mountain, a Chinese restaurant open since 1931. It survived three generations of Chans until the latest owner, Reginald Chan, was killed on his bicycle while making a delivery in 2006. His family closed the place months later. In the photo, it remains vibrant, a colorful beacon of Asian-American restaurant architecture.
_The venerable P&G Cafe on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, once a gambling parlor and speakeasy. Open until early this year, it was a warm place to go for a friendly beer and people-watching. It, too, is gone now, as is its vintage neon sign; rumor has it the place may eventually reopen elsewhere.
_Manhattan Furrier, which is not in Manhattan but in Greenpoint, a Brooklyn neighborhood. Looking at it transports you back to the 1940s abruptly and delightfully.
The names go on, as distinctive as the architecture they present to passers-by: El Coqui restaurant. G&D Television. Ascione’s Pharmacy (”Purity, Accuracy”). Matt Umanov Guitars. New Public Meats. Ranbow Cafe.
Every page is full of such discoveries in miniature — all the businesses that the New York immigrant experience birthed and helped thrive for many decades. “These storefronts have the city’s history etched in their facades,” the authors write. “They set the pulse, life and texture of their communities.”
Americans treasure distinctiveness almost as much as they treasure big-box stores. New York, though, has always been different. Even as standardization marched across the land during the decades after World War II, New York City somehow remained largely immune until the past 15 years or so. The shift happening now makes a book like this not only fascinating but, from an urban preservation perspective, urgent.
The nature of the photographs — their aesthetic, their vantage point — unites the book and offers a baseline for comparison. Most every storefront is shot straight on, proscenium style, as if it were a stage. So they are seen in their entirety, as if you are driving by slowly and can take a lingering look.
This is counterintuitive but effective. Walkers, who make up so much of NYC’s texture, encounter their storefronts in fragments, in close-up and at odd angles — a more natural way to view them. This pulling back of the lens to a blocked-off rectangle equalizes the facades and makes them more democratic. It’s as if each is given an equally fair chance of drawing you in, of capturing your business with original signage or compelling wares.
Taken together, these storefronts chronicle so much of modern American commercial culture — the emergence of typefaces, the use of neon as a drawing card, the struggle to imbue business graphics with sophistication and then, eventually, with simplicity again.
They tell the story of the 20th century in New York, with wisps of the 19th and hints of the 21st. If you want to understand the aesthetics of the country’s most famous city at street level, this is the best way to do it short of actually going there. And even if you’re a New Yorker, this will show you the city in an entirely new way.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Ted Anthony covers American culture for The Associated Press.