In a city where the shuttering of beloved mom-and-pop shops is greeted with a weary shrug of resignation, street photographers play a vital role in “rescuing” images of these retail relics before they disappear forever.
Husband-and-wife team James and Karla Murray have become the inadvertent standard-bearers of the photographer-as-preservationist mantle, having documented hundreds of Gotham’s fragile small businesses in “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York.”
The book happened quite by accident: The couple initially set out in the mid 1990s to document the work of graffiti artists in the city’s far-flung corners. But their gaze was repeatedly redirected to the work of artists of another kind: The anonymous makers of New York’s mom-and-pop storefronts, celebrations of imaginative design, font and color that speak to an era where storefronts were a point of family pride and bland green vinyl awnings were all but unimaginable.
When they’d go back to a neighborhood after a few months for follow-up graffiti photos, they’d discover time and again that these storefront survivors of an earlier New York were no more.
“We started noticing that more and more and more, and we said, ‘Oh this is terrible,” said Karla Murray.
The idea for the book was born.
What makes these photos all the more compelling is the stories the Murrays found lurking behind the riots of neon and mid-century typography — the sagas of proprietors who have soldiered on for decades despite sometimes formidable pressures beyond just making lease payments.
“Parking tickets — it’s a huge problem for these guys. The meat people — you can’t hang preserved meat in the windows anymore,” said James Murray, recounting the problems that hastened the demise of “a bunch” of old Polish shops that banked on those aromas by the door to whet appetites — and sales.
A new mini-edition of their book has been published — consider it a portable version of the coffee-table original, perfect for carrying on walking tours. Except the book becomes less handy as a guide to the street every day. The percentage of storefronts in the book that have now vanished has reached 60, up from about a third just two years ago. Increasingly, these shops exist only between the covers of this book.
The Murrays are still on the hunt for classic storefronts, with more urgency than ever.
“Now, if we find one -- there could be a giant truck in front of it -- we’ll photograph it anyway. It literally may not be there the next day or the next week,” Karla Murray said.
Meet James and Karla Murray at Clic Gallery, at a book signing and show opening. Thursday, March 3, from 6 to 8 pm at 255 Centre St.
A selection of storefronts from a bygone New York
Chambers Street near Church Street, TriBeCa
Years in business: 1963-2007
Chosen as the book’s cover image, Ralph’s was shuttered to make way for a condo. The Murrays were taken by the dramatic script of the sign, a one-off font. Pay special attention to the unusual “s” — it looks like a heart on its side.
Katy’s Candy Store
Tompkins Avenue near Vernon Avenue, Bedford-Stuyvesant
Years in business: 1969-2008
Catherine Keyzer told the Murrays her store was the last of the penny-candy shops, where C&C colas sold for 25 cents. She stuck with it through good and bad — and by bad she meant hold-ups by folks she recognized. A now-stalled condo project killed this neighborhood institution. “This is all I have,” she told the Murrays.
A telling detail: The hooked rope at the left side of the picture was used by neighbors upstairs to hoist groceries.
Jimmy’s Stationery & Toys
Tompkins Avenue between Jefferson Avenue and Hancock Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant
Years in business: Still going after 75 years
The sign was free, courtesy of Coca Cola. The Murrays found that business was hurt by the kind of subtle societal changes that hit mom-and-pops hard: The nearby school no longer allowed candy to be brought in, so the owner lost that vital before-school business.
Fun Fact: A photo of a teddy bear is kept at the store, as the cuddly toy was “invented” at a shop that was next door.
Knickerbocker Avenue near DeKalb Avenue, Bushwick
Years in business:
After the book’s publication, the Murrays got a call from the owner of Ideal Dinettes: The store was closing. They could have the gorgeous sign, but the couple couldn’t take it — and it was junked. The sign’s loss was symbolic of a far deeper loss: the generational ties to the neighborhood that disappeared along with Ideal Dinettes. The owner told the Murrays of selling dinettes to young people whose grandparents had purchased theirs at the shop decades earlier.
Brand’s Wine & Liquor
145th Street near Broadway, Harlem
Years in Business: 1920s-present
Brand’s had a glorious neon marquee sign, and when owner Moon Lee took over, he was drawn to the store partly because of the sign, the Murrays said. The city, however, was enforcing rules barring such signs. Lee fought the good fight — and lost, threatened with steep fines. 145th was once distinguished by such marquees. The loss of the Brand’s sign, Lee said, was emblematic of changes to the neighborhood that are eroding character.